“In diplomacy, I have often said that when you do surprises, you usually drive your friends into the fetal position.” Former American Diplomat Dennis Ross’s comments during a Washington Institute for Near East Policy presentation typified the unease of his fellow panelists in the United States and the Middle East in response to Donald Trump’s upset election – particularly because the president-elect’s future actions remain disturbingly unknown.
Calling in from Saudi Arabia, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi also expressed his astonishment at the events of Nov. 8, saying that “Saudi Arabian officials were caught off guard by the election of Mr. Trump” because they had expected “the lady they know very well,” Hillary Clinton, to become president-elect. Khashoggi’s colleague, Jordanian Jumana Ghunaimat, said that the majority of her countrymen were also surprised by the Republican’s win.
American political observer Norman Ornstein said that Trump’s election exhibited the “Bradley effect,” in which perceived social disapproval deters individuals from revealing their true sentiments, even anonymously to pollsters. “In Israel, people tell the truth to pollsters – then they lie when they vote,” Ornstein said; this sentiment was confirmed by Times of Israel founding Editor David Horovitz in his online appearance from Israel. Israeli surprise about Trump remained limited, for “Israelis have a great deal less faith in opinion surveys and pollsters than Americans seem to,” he said. “Polling in Israel is spectacularly discredited; they get everything wrong all the time.”
Horovitz noted a discrepancy in Israeli surveys concerning the American presidential election, and said that he believed Israelis “would have voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a good margin” of 10-15 percent, although “Israelis were telling the pollsters they thought that Trump would probably be – whatever it means – better for Israel.” Horovitz added that political newbie Trump’s lack of a policy track record swayed many Israelis in Clinton’s favor.
In addition, Horovitz said that when Israelis evaluate American presidents, a “big factor is empathy. Israelis loved Bill Clinton. They didn’t much like George H. W. Bush, [but] they kind of liked George W. Bush. It has been difficult with Obama.”
He went on to explain that,
People don’t just want to live and let live in this part of the world. Some of them want to kill and be killed – and better still to encourage other people to kill and be killed in some perverted sense of what God requires of them. We want an American president who understands the evil that people can do.
Conversely, Horovitz pointed out that “most Israelis would feel that Trump has evinced a credible empathy for Israel,” while President Barack Obama’s administration “has underestimated how treacherous this region can be. Israeli leadership would be withering on the way the Obama Administration has related to Iran, [whose Islamic Republic is] ideologically and territorially – a rapacious regime.” Horovitz further accused the Obama Administration of showing a “willful blindness to the danger posed by this regime and a refusal to listen to what the regime was saying.”
Khashoggi was less optimistic in describing Saudis who “have to go back to the drawing board and plan with the uncertainty of Mr. Trump.” While some Saudis speculated that “Trump the president is different from Trump the candidate,” Khashoggi warned that the president-elect’s views “are deep-rooted into his philosophy. He had been expressing such views for the last 20 years. If we had difficulties with somebody like Mr. Obama, I am sure we will have more difficulties with Mr. Trump.” Warning that “Saudi Arabia should be ready for surprises – for negative remarks coming from the Trump administration,” Khashoggi suggested “some kind of alliance of Muslim countries who could be targeted by this rightwing administration.”
Also uncertain about the president-elect was Ghunaimat, who said that most Jordanians are reserving judgment on a Trump who has voiced a “strange opinion” about Muslims, women and others. But she expressed confidence in the longstanding American-Jordanian “strategic relation,” saying that “nothing will change” with respect to issues like the fight against terrorism. She added that she has seen little change across the decades in American policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – irrespective of the administration – but she also expressed the hope that a “new administration could build a new bridge to have a final solution for this conflict.”
In America, Ornstein said that he was disappointed with the election of the thrice-married Trump, but said he “tried to reassure people not to worry too much. Within a couple of months, he will leave us for a younger country. We are now living in a world where worst-case scenarios are not necessarily fanciful scenarios.” He also warned that Trump has effectively promised an upcoming war on Islam and said that this foreshadowing, coupled with what he called Trump’s contradictions – including his “combination of isolationism and belligerence” – present a person who is “policy free. He has no idea other than a few sort of spasms of emotions and the attention span of a rabbit.”
Ornstein and Ross both stressed that Trump’s past and often novice policy prescriptions placed a special significance upon the individuals he would pick for his cabinet. “It pays to be humble at this point, not only because nobody predicted that he would be president, but also because there are enormous uncertainties out there – and we don’t really know what he would do,” Ross said. By contrast, “our traditional partners” the Israelis and Sunni Arabs – rather than feeling uncertainty post-election – “are looking for a strong America; a strong America that remains in the Middle East.”
Ross advocated American engagement in a Middle East where a “long stream of pretenders from [Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel] Nasser to the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS … all claimed they have the answer to restore this region to greatness.” The current Saudi reform program (previously analyzed by him) “promises to create for the first time a successful model of development and modernization.”
Meanwhile, “there is a struggle for balance of power in the region. It’s a struggle between radical Islamists, Sunni and Shia, particularly Iran and the Shia militias, and non-Islamists. We have a big stake in that.”
Cross-posted from Philos Project.