The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on April 30, 2017, which discussed the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency. The panel included John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings; Abdullah Baabood, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University; and Adel Abdel Ghafar, visiting fellow at the BDC. Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University and visiting scholar at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Hudak spoke first, expressing that the first 100 days of the Trump administration had tossed much of his political science training out the window. They were very complicated, with no focus in many areas of policy, in part because Trump likely did not expect to win and therefore lacked seriousness about how to get started. Additionally, Trump has relied on loyalists, such as family members, rather than experts. These loyalists’ complete lack of relevant experience reinforces Trump’s weaknesses, rather than balancing them. Hudak called the makeup of Trump’s team “political malpractice,” and an impediment to Trump enacting his agenda.
That, Hudak continued, coincides with Trump not accomplishing much in his first 100 days. Most notably, his attempts to ban immigration from certain majority-Muslim countries were halted by the courts, and Trump and Congressional Republicans could not agree on a new healthcare policy. Hudak argued that if Trump wants to bring drastic change, as he promised and his voters expect, he should fire a lot of his advisors, replace them with knowledgeable people, and fill more appointments. When Ghabra asked about resistance, Hudak explained that Trump’s perceived disdain for democratic values had provoked numerous peaceful demonstrations and protest marches in Washington and beyond.
Baabood reported that while the Gulf was also surprised by Trump’s win, some GCC leaders had already invested heavily in their relationships with him. Baabood said many in the Gulf view Trump as having a completely different outlook than Obama, with whom Gulf leaders had some disagreements. However, Trump’s contradictory positions have presented as many questions as answers so far. In the Gulf, Baabood explained, it seems like Trump is taking a harder line on Iran, but what that means is unclear. More broadly, he has said he wants the United States to be less involved in the region, but has launched strikes in Syria and especially Yemen.
Baabood also contrasted Trump’s statements of support for the Gulf with his demands that Gulf states pay for it. Baabood added that Gulf leaders view Trump as transactional, and are comfortable with that, because they are used to paying for their security. They also welcome Trump’s apparent disinterest in conditioning arms sales or promoting democracy and human rights. Baabood concluded that regional populations are happy with what Trump is doing on Iran, Syria, and ISIS, but concerned about his statements on Israeli settlements and the two-state solution.
Abdel Ghafar emphasized three factors. First, optics are even more important to Trump than to other politicians. Second, Trump has struggled to find a balance between soft and hard power. Adel Ghafar argued that the United States has tended to get more out of soft power over time, but Trump’s proposed budget is skewed toward hard power. Third, Trump has publicly embraced transactional diplomacy, which always exists but is usually behind the scenes. Abdel Ghafar agreed that this is well-suited for dealing with the Gulf.
Asked about Trump’s policy toward Egypt, Abdel Ghafar explained that the relationship was low-hanging fruit, as it was simple to reverse the cooling that happened under Obama following the coup. He added that Egyptians perceive Trump as being friendly to Egypt, and have opted to ignore things like the Muslim ban, but aid cuts could have a negative impact. Meanwhile, regarding Libya, Trump said he does not see a U.S. role there, despite Italy’s urging.
Following-up, Hudak suggested that world leaders, especially strongmen, like Trump’s habit of stating positions firmly and clearly after Obama’s deliberate approach. However, Hudak continued, Trump speaks first and understands later, as demonstrated with the possibility of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel and the healthcare bill. This results in a huge gap between what is said and what happens, which will start to frustrate foreign leaders going forward. Hudak also noted Trump’s desire to boost defense spending, but cautioned that leaving the State Department shorthanded will undermine his goals and allow other countries to fill the resulting diplomatic vacuum. He said it is fortunate for the United States that the generals Trump has put in place understand that, and seem to have a lot of influence.
Hudak went on to call Trump’s proposed border wall “a sign of ignorance” that highlighted Trump’s lack of understanding of policy ramifications. Relatedly, Abdel Ghafar argued that Trump’s election and support is part of the global resurgence of ethno-nationalism and populism. He said people are tired of establishment politicians, and find it easy to blame economic troubles on immigrants. Baabood agreed, noting that it is not the first time the United States has pursued isolationist policies.
In response to further questions from Ghabra, Hudak argued that because it is difficult to connect international crises directly to individuals’ wellbeing, Trump might not suffer politically from foreign policy mistakes. He said Republicans will certainly lose seats in the House in the 2018 elections, and that current polls show “a slaughter.” Abdel Ghafar posited that while a large number of Trump voters are more concerned with bread and butter issues and are unlikely to change their views, some will certainly rethink things, possibly to the advantage of the Democrats. Baabood cautioned that Trump could surprise everyone, especially because he is pragmatic and willing to change his mind.
In response to questions from the audience, Abdel Ghafar suggested that Trump’s missile strike on Syria was primarily to distract from criticism and bad poll numbers, much like his allegations of wire-tapping and other early morning tweets. Hudak agreed, calling the strike reactionary, but noted that despite being popular it did not improve Trump’s approval rating. He added that the wire-tapping business is an example of Trump speaking first and understanding later, because even if the claim was true, it would mean that the government had decided it was necessary to investigate him. On Iran, Baabood agreed that Trump will end up acceding to Obama’s view, arguing that Iran is too important to neglect and that isolating it is unlikely to be effective. However, he expressed concern about the real risk of an accidental escalation.
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Rather than serving as a unifying diplomatic exercise to highlight Iran’s troubling regional activities, the [Warsaw] summit primarily highlighted America’s diplomatic isolation from its European allies.