American President-elect Donald Trump has caused much concern around the world in general, and the wider Middle East in particular. Yet, there is no clear picture about whether he as president will be much different from Trump as presidential aspirant and President-elect. We can assume that in the presidency he will have to deal with certain constraints emanating from his office, the Congress, the bureaucracy, judiciary and military industrial complex. He therefore may not be able to run his country as the CEO of a company, which he has been used to.
However, judging by what he has said and the people he has nominated or appointed to serve in his cabinet and White House staff, he may well turn out to be the most inexperienced, conservative and divisive head of state the American electoral system has produced.
Trump has so far made a number of policy-oriented remarks that give us some indication as to what his approach to Afghanistan and the region might be. Five of those are most relevant.
First, he wants to put America first and does not believe in "nation building" abroad.
Second, he desires to scrap the July 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.
Third, he wants the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, to meet the cost of security that the United States provides them.
Fourth, he seeks to deepen the US-Israeli strategic partnership, move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and make sure the Palestinians are not a bother to Israel.
Fifth, he wishes to forge friendly relations with Russia as an important country in fighting terrorism and extremism, and by the same token inject substance into his antagonism towards China.
However, if these pointers are translated into concrete policies during his presidency, they are contradictory and not easily achievable, for several reasons.
First of all, an application of his disbelief in nation-building to Afghanistan could prove disastrous for that country and the region. The Afghan situation continues to be very fragile politically, economically and security wise. The Afghan government remains weak and divided, with no strong, visionary and unifying leadership, in the face of the robust Taliban-led insurgency. After 15 years of US and allied involvement, the country is still one of the poorest, corrupt, and insecure and poorly governed states in the world. Its destiny has become closely entangled with regional disputes and conflicts. These include those between Pakistan and India, and Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the rise of Islamic State (IS), which has also prompted Russia and Iran to establish contact with Pakistan-backed Taliban as a counterforce to IS in Afghanistan.
Whatever the outcome, Afghanistan is still heavily dependent on American security and construction aid. Any substantial reduction in America's aid could easily result in more chaos and bloodshed than is the case at present, and the country could easily revert to its dark days as a hub for extremism and terrorism.
On the issue of scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, Trump will not be in a position to do so, for the agreement is not just between Iran and the US, and the other signatories to the agreement have made it clear they will honour their commitment. Given Trump's desire for friendly ties with Russia and Iran's close relations with Russia, this would make it even more difficult for Trump to achieve his stated objective. However, Trump can slap more sanctions, in addition to the existing ones, on Iran and make it more difficult for Iranians to reap the benefits they have been expecting from the lifting of most of the sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program.
Regarding making the Saudi-led GCC states pay for the cost of America's provision of security, this has already been happening. The GCC's oil-rich members have been contributing billions of dollars to the American arms industry and hold huge investments in the United States. In the first Gulf War, the Gulf Arab states met the bulk of the cost of the war, which came to a total of $57 billion. As a result, the US made a profit of $7 billion from that war. So, Trump's call for security recovery costs carries little substance.
In relation to Israel, Trump's deeper tango is unlikely to substantially change the existing situation. Every American president has given unqualified support to Israel, which has played a critical role in enabling Israel to maintain its occupation and to jeopardise the two-state solution. Shifting the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem cannot dramatically change the overall equation. It will just simply help Israel cement its hold on the occupied territories and its brutal treatment of the Palestinian people in disregard of the UN Security Council Resolutions and the international community's condemnation of Israel.
Finally, Trump's attempts at co-operation with Russia may also fall flat, given the US domestic opposition to it and the controversy surrounding Trump's motives for such co-operation. He is likely to come under enormous pressure from inside and outside of Congress to be careful of any substantive alignment with Moscow. Senator John McCain has already assured the Baltic states and other NATO allies of America's full support in the event of any Russian move against their sovereignty and independence. Trump has said his main motive is to fight terrorism jointly with Russia, but he must be aware that the two sides have very divergent interests, and that Moscow cannot be expected to do anything that might help the US against China.
Overall, Trump's foreign policy remarks have caused much concern around the world in general, and the Middle East in particular. What is most important is that those remarks contradict one another, and they can prove to be dangerously counterproductive. Only time will tell whether his remarks can bear fruit, but the constraints confronting him cannot be underestimated.
Amin Saikal is distinguished professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.