Stephen A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations–
This article was originally published here on Salon.com on Sunday, January 22, 2017.
At about 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, Donald Trump received his first congratulatory phone call as president-elect. It came from Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In the weeks since then, Egyptian officials pointed to the call as a symbol of a new era in U.S.-Egypt relations, which soured considerably after the July 2013 coup d’état that overthrew the elected government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi and brought Sisi to power. Egyptian officials were so happy with the outcome of the election that Sisi reportedly considered attending the inauguration.
Sisi stayed in Cairo, but Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, showed up in person. It is not unusual for some foreign ambassadors to attend the inaugural ceremonies; the presence of someone as senior as Cavusoglu was. A delegation of Israeli settlers also made the trip to celebrate the Trump presidency. No one from the Arab Gulf states attended. Unlike the Egyptians, Israelis and Turks, who seem positively giddy over Trump, the Saudis and Emiratis have taken a more cautious approach to change at the White House — but they nevertheless seem pleased to put the Barack Obama era behind them.
It all seems rather strange given how Trump rode to power, winking at Islamophobes as well as anti-Semites and otherwise appealing to isolationists. If there was any sign during the long campaign about Trump’s approach to the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy more generally, it was retrenchment. That is not good for Washington’s major regional allies, yet leaders in these countries seem willing to overlook this inconvenient fact in favor of a fantasy that Trump will be a better steward of their security and American interests than was Obama.
The Egyptians, for example, are convinced that the Trump administration will offer its unconditional support for Sisi and drop the Bush and Obama administrations’ objections to Egypt’s abysmal record on human rights. For their part, the Turks know that the new administration will support their fight against Kurdish nationalism. Israelis are now confident of American political and diplomatic cover to continue the slow and steady annexation of the West Bank. The Arab Gulf states and Israel, outraged over Obama’s outreach to Iran, are counting on Trump to restore Washington’s adversarial relationship with Tehran.
Even if Trump does what Middle Eastern leaders want him to do, one has to wonder: To what end? How will it make things better? Is there not a significant chance that Trump will make things worse instead? It’s worth remembering that fantasies are by definition alluring, but are rarely satisfying when someone tries to make them come true. The Egyptians seem likely to get what they want: a change in tone in their bilateral relations with Washington. Yet they should keep their enthusiasm in check.
Besides the temporary political boost that better relations with Washington will give Sisi, they won’t make the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula go away or make Egypt’s struggling economy suddenly grow. There is no indication that a Trump administration will be more forthcoming than Obama on military or economic assistance. Trump is about the “art of the deal.” In his transactional world, what is Egypt’s currency? The old Egyptian refrain about being a “force for stability in the region” is getting old — and is no longer accurate. Besides, what does Trump care about the region other than “bombing the