Trump’s Impact on the World: Melani Cammett on the Middle East

Harvard Professor of International Affairs Melani Cammett reviews the range of US policy stances in the Middle East and asks us to examine the difference between concrete policy shifts and skillful rhetoric.

Image of Melani Cammett and Michele Lamont

This is the second blog post in a series of edited transcripts from a panel on Trump's presidency held during our orientation in August 28, 2018. Our three panelists were Christina L. Davis, Melani Cammett, and Timothy Colton

Since the panel took place, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. President Trump’s failure to condemn Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman or to hold Saudi Arabia responsible has been widely viewed as a moral failing and an extreme act of favoritism. Some believe the incident has upset the dynamics of US relations with its Gulf allies, underscoring US permissiveness and bias toward Saudi Arabia.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk delivered by Melani Cammett:

Trump's impact on the Middle East is both radical and minimal. There are elements of it that I would say could be interpreted as really radical and new, and a lot of it is really not that new, but just dressed up in a lot of rhetoric and incendiary language and so forth. 

I'll start with the radical side. And maybe radical is too strong of a word, but I'll just use it to be provocative. 

There are several pillars of American foreign policy toward this region that I'll address. And I think in each one, you could interpret some of his [Trump’s] moves as new and destabilizing and radical. So I'll focus on the relationship with Israel, the relationship with the conservative Gulf Arab monarchies, and the war on terrorism. And there's always oil percolating in there in one way or another. 

In terms of Israel, you could make the claim that this is a radical administration in its very strong and overt support for the government of Israel—for the Netanyahu government in particular. And this is, of course, encapsulated in the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. This is something that many Israeli administrations would have liked to see, but until now it has not been done by a US administration. So you could say this is a big move. And it is potentially quite destabilizing and could have longer-term ramifications in terms of stoking political tensions in the region and so forth. 

On the other hand, to be honest, a lot of Arab regimes have not really been champions for Palestinian rights, anyway. So it's noteworthy that a lot of regimes have made a few comments here and there but have not taken serious steps to respond to this in any way or another. But nonetheless, the decision to move the embassy could be interpreted as a radical move. And there's other things as well, like cutting off funding to the UN agency that serves Palestinian refugees. 

So that's one aspect where we could interpret this as big change. Another is the overt aligning with the conservative Gulf Arab monarchies—particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. And this is something of a break from the Obama administration. 

I remember being in a meeting in Riyadh in 2015, where I somehow became the target of all of the Bahraini and Saudi officials from the foreign ministries of those two countries, where they were telling me, ‘you know, the Obama administration was doing abominable things in the region and had really picked the wrong side.’ They interpreted the Obama administration's decision to pursue the Iran nuclear deal as side-taking and so a move against the Gulf monarchies. So clearly Trump has shifted his posture on this, and has been much more in the camp of these Gulf monarchies. And he has really waged a rhetorical war, and now something more than rhetorical, on Iran by pulling out in May from the JCPOA—from the Iran nuclear deal. 

So that's arguably a big step. It's a big split from the prior administration's efforts to dial down tensions with the Iranians. And the previous administration was of the philosophy that these little steps would be trust-building moves that could then pave the way to more comprehensive agreements. And this has been unraveled in this decision to pull out of the accord, and to have the sanctions come back in, and so forth. 

Arguably, this shift on Iran has had a number of consequences. Certainly, it may have some consequences on the Iranian economy but also potentially by losing trust in the US as a negotiating partner and potentially destabilizing the region—emboldening the more hard-line elements of the Iranian regime and so forth.  It also maybe gave a green light to the conservative elements of the Gulf monarchies and to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia to push harder in regional proxy wars to stage a crackdown on what are perceived as domestic threats, personified or embodied in the famous Ritz-Carlton episode and so forth. 

So there are some potential and actual consequences to these decisions, and they do appear to be significant shifts. But at the same time, if we take a step back, we see actually not that much has changed. The United States has been very pro-Israel in its foreign policy for many, many decades. It's arguably just more overtly so. 

Fighting terrorism has been a major goal since 2001, if not earlier. And this is something that the administration has placed a lot of emphasis on, but that's not unique to this administration. Maybe one thing that is slightly different is that there doesn't seem to be any sort of fig-leaf effort to say that we're engaging in democracy promotion. 

But let's be real. I don't think there was very serious democracy promotion. And this is evident in the fact that where democracy was promoted, it was very selective. Where it was strategically dangerous, the US was not very forceful in promoting democratization. 

Where it didn't really matter so much, it was OK to be more promoting of democracy. And American interests—which I think the Trump administration is very overt about—have always, I think, been the major criteria in guiding American foreign policy, despite the rhetoric. So in that sense also, I don't think that there's much difference. 

In terms of Iran, yes, we do see some notable changes that I've outlined already. But we've had a very tense relationship with Iran since 1979. The Obama administration was sort of dialing that back a little, but this is very much in line with a trajectory that's been established in American foreign policy already. 

And what's interesting is—despite the rhetoric, despite the decision to pull out of the nuclear deal—the Trump administration is not actively engaging in blocking Iranian efforts to spread its influence in the region. This is evident in Syria in particular. Really, the goal is to kind of crush ISIS and get out. 

In this sense, there isn't actually that much difference from the Obama administration in terms of policy toward Syria. Even the Israeli allies of the US would, I think, like to see a greater US role in trying to limit Iranian influence in neighboring Syria. And the Trump administration has been hesitant to do that, as was true of the prior administration. Even coming to the relationship with MBS in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates—although Trump came out with the sword dancing and the orb event and so forth, very much aligned with these actors, and there seemed to be established personal relationships, even there—Trump has pulled back a little and is not as hardline on Qatar as he initially was. 

So I think there's a lot to be said for continuity. And for me, this raises some interesting questions. If one of the major differences here is rhetoric and language, then what is the impact of rhetoric and language on politics in the region? I'm not trying to minimize rhetoric and language; they may actually be quite consequential. 

So I think that's an interesting research question. They may have second-order effects in terms of emboldening certain actors to take steps that they wouldn't otherwise take: shifting political attitudes, inflaming tensions, and so forth. So if some of the most important shifts under this administration are about rhetoric, and not necessarily about concrete policy, I think there's a research question worth exploring there. 

Melani Cammett quote

Broadly speaking, I work on Middle East and North Africa, although actually right now I'm also working on a project in India, thanks in part to support from the Weatherhead Center—but on similar themes that I've worked on in other regions. And I work on religion and politics, identity politics and development, economic and social development, and on the intersection of identity and development. 

A number of my projects have to do with the relations between religious groups that are in conflict with each other or experiencing tensions with each other, and when they cooperate to provide public goods, when they don't cooperate. How does social welfare work when religious actors are supplying it? How does it work when religious actors are supplying it to members of the same religious community, versus different religious communities? And also I have another line of research related to identity politics that looks at the impact of fear and sectarian rhetoric on political attitudes and behaviors. 

In this sense, I think some of my research is aligned with this question about what's the impact of language and rhetoric on behavior. So just to say a few words about these lines of research, sectarianism is something that we weren't really talking about maybe fifteen years ago, even maybe ten years ago, so much, in the Middle East. And all of a sudden, it's become a big word out there and a phenomenon. 

You know this is happening when you turn on CNN, and there's all these retired generals explaining about the longstanding tensions between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia in Iraq. So you know that consciousness about sectarian tensions has entered the mainstream when you see this on cable network news. And what I find so interesting is that this wasn't always a thing. 

Even in my period of time, studying Lebanon, where I've been working since 2006 roughly, it has become much more of a pronounced, politically salient phenomenon than it was before. I've even had my neighbors, when I've lived in Lebanon, saying to me, ‘we didn't think about this stuff. This just was not an issue for us’—even in a country where political offices are allocated by sect. So by definition, sect is politically salient in Lebanon because the whole power-sharing system is based on sectarian identities. 

But even there, sect in everyday life, in social and everyday political life, was not so politicized. So that, to me, is a fascinating phenomenon. And part of the reason for this is related to US foreign policy, not under the Trump administration, but instead under the George W. Bush administration, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and so forth. 

That's not the entire reason. I think we can certainly trace this back to some of Saddam Hussein's own policies and other developments in the region. 

But to me, that's very interesting: the conditions under which these group identities become politicized, become sites of tension when they weren't previously. And we live in this era when all we see are tensions ostensibly on sectarian lines. So it's easy to think that that was always the case, but it certainly wasn't. And I myself have seen it spike in everyday life in Lebanon. 

Some of the research I've been doing is looking at the quality of primary health care in the Lebanese health care system, looking at whether folks from different religions going to the same type of provider, say, a Sunni or a Christian or a Shia Muslim provider, are getting the same quality of care. I'm also doing some papers looking at the quality of care that Syrian refugees get versus Lebanese nationals and seeing whether politics and these social identities affect the actual experience of the delivery of social services. And we've been doing some work along these lines in Delhi, India, looking at cooperation across Hindu-Muslim lines in sanitation schemes in slum communities as well. 

I gave a talk in Delhi in May, and they asked me to talk about some of the projects I've been doing in Lebanon. And they were thinking, ‘this is so relevant to India.’ It was really interesting to hear the reactions of Indian scholars and researchers to research on another part of the world and see that some of it resonated. 

Just to wrap up, one other area of research that I've been engaging in—in collaboration with a PhD student in the government department here, and a think tank in Lebanon—is looking at how a variety of factors shape people's political preferences and behavior. What makes them more likely to vote for a politician? What makes them more likely to go out and demonstrate in favor of a politician? 

And a lot of the literature in political science looks at clientelism and says clientelism is the biggest driver of voter turnout, of voter behavior, and so forth. And we're not denying that. It does matter. 

But actually what we're finding is other things matter a lot as well, and sometimes more. And in our research, which is based on a survey experiment, we find that religious identity matters more than clientelism. So if the politician is from the same community, it seems to move people even more than if the politician is going to give them jobs and benefits and things like that. 

We're also looking at the effects of sectarian rhetoric. So there's a lot of that flying around. Politicians are very adept, the world over, at playing on fears and identity-based politics. And so when a politician says, ‘oh, the Sunni extremists are coming in, and they're going to target you, they're going to kill you, or they're going to take over this or that,’ does that move people to support that politician as the protector of the community? 

We're just looking at the data now. But so far, it seems like the religious identity net of the rhetoric seems to matter more to people. And I think that's something worth investigating. 

What is it about shared, identity-based affiliations that moves people? So I think there's a lot of interesting work to be done that we're trying to push forward.

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Melani Cammett is chair of The Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies; Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University; and professor of global health and population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research encompasses comparative politics; political economy of development; religion and ethnicity; governance and welfare by public, private, and non-state actors; and Middle East politics.


1. Image of Melani Cammett, taken at the Weatherhead Center Orientation panel on August 28, 2018. Credit: Lauren McLaughlin

Also in the “Trump’s Impact on the World” series: