When it comes to the “what is the least bad” game for the Middle East, the answer should be obvious. Donald Trump is a populist-nationalist whose actions in the region have mainly had the effect of galvanizing local autocrats and the Israeli right. He is the American president who has gone the furthest in unconditionally supporting the Hebrew state, giving Benjamin Netanyahu everything he could have hoped for: recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and of the formally-annexed Golan Heights, the Kushner Plan, the end of American subsidies for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and, of course, joining three other Arab countries (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan) in normalizing ties with Israel.
One could certainly think of it as his having made official a situation that many refused to admit existed. But his way of doing so leaves an altogether different impression and a much more bitter taste: that international norms no longer matter when Israel is involved; that Palestinians do not have rights, not even the right to have a say when they are the main ones concerned. In the Middle East, it is a constant of Trump’s diplomacy — even if that expression is an oxymoron: People do not exist and local leaders have free rein to repress anything and everything on the domestic front on the condition that it does not harm American interests. And for four years, local dictators have had a field day with it; the Khashoggi affair is evidence of that.
Mohammed bin Salman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or even Recep Tayypi Erdogan have been able to take down their political opponents by all possible and imaginable means (and sometimes even unimaginable ones) without the occupant of the White House even pretending to care.
And yet, in spite of it all, a not insignificant part of the Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian people would vote for Trump on Nov. 3 if they could. Why? Simply because he has made Iran his main enemy in the area, while the Obama administration, on the contrary, signed an agreement with Tehran and gave the impression of allowing it room to stretch its tentacles across the Middle East.
For those who see the Islamic State group and its allies as an existential threat, and there are many of them, Trump’s election seemed like a godsend. He is the one who reinstated harsh sanctions against the Iranian regime and brought it to its knees; he is the one who had the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, killed in Iraq, his own backyard; he is the one who intervened militarily — unlike his predecessor — after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people.
It does not matter much to the American president’s (fanatical) supporters in the Middle East that Iran respected the nuclear agreement that he scrapped; that his policy toward the Islamic Republic has not cause the regime to fold, nor has it made that regime pull back in the region; and that the sanctions have had the main effect of impoverishing, even more, a people who must survive between the American hammer and the Mullah’s anvil.
All that matters is that in standing up to the arrogance of Iran — a regime that was no longer even hiding its imperialistic ambitions — the United States responded with a show of force. For his supporters in the region, another Trump victory would mean nothing less than the end of the Iranian regime, and that is enough to make all the rest not so bad.
They nonetheless run the risk of being disappointed. The Iranian regime is able to hang on, thanks to its own forces of suppression and propaganda. A second term for Trump could, on the contrary, lead him to double down on positions harmful to these supporters.
But they still have their finger on something important: The American president pounded his fist on the table without causing another war in the region, as the majority of analysts had predicted. Tehran did not respond to Soleimani’s killing, and Damascus has not used its chemical weapons since. And if Iranian leaders are hoping for a Joe Biden victory, it is because they know they cannot afford the luxury of a direct confrontation with the United States and that a second term for Trump risks harming them, so much more so because an alliance between Israel and the Arab states is taking shape at its door.
Between Barack Obama’s diplomatic approach and Trump’s maximum pressure, there is surely middle ground: one that would allow for a less haphazard countering of Iran’s hopes of influence — without closing our eyes to overreaching by its enemies. A way of maintaining U.S. engagement in the Middle East without leading to a repeat of the catastrophic scenario of its 2003 intervention in Iraq or the withdrawal from Syria in 2013, which whetted the appetites of powers in the region, which have fought for hegemony ever since, to the detriment of local people.
If he is elected on Nov. 3, will Biden be able to find this extremely delicate balance? If that is the case, then he would be better than the lesser of two evils for the Middle East.