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Why Donald Trump is (Mostly) Right About the Middle East

In 1989 I met Donald Trump several times in Palm Beach in Florida where he was trying to stop jets from a newly expanded Palm Beach International Airport from roaring over his enormous mansion. This was Mar-a-Lago, a magnificent house with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms which Trump had bought four years earlier without realising it was under the flight path.

I learned about Trump’s problem because I knew a Canadian paper and pulp magnate who had bought a house near Mar-a-Lago and was also suffering from the airport noise. He was bitter that the people who had arranged for him to visit his new home prior to purchase had carefully chosen a brief moment when there were no planes passing overhead. The two multi-millionaires had set up an organisation that aimed to unite the less well-off people living in West Palm Beach and the plutocrats of Palm Beach, who were not natural allies, in order to get something done about the planes. There was plenty to complain of because, after an airport expansion the year before, there were 200 planes taking off every day.

I had mentioned what was happening in Palm Beach to a friend on a magazine in New York who promptly asked me to write a piece about it. I suspect that the idea was that I would produce a knock-about account of the farcical failure of Trump’s self-serving efforts to unite mansion owners, who lived there irregularly, and the less well-heeled but permanent population. In the event, the article was never published, possibly because I wrote that Trump’s campaign to reduce the noise level, involving a curfew on night-time flying, a ban on the noisier aircraft and the enforcement of existing airport noise restrictions, seemed perfectly sensible.

In the long term, the agitation combined with the threat of legal action by Trump and my Canadian friend must have worked, since I noticed a year later that Palm Beach airport had just become the first airport in the American South to limit and possibly ban the noisiest planes. But all was evidently not entirely well, because in January this year, a quarter of a century after I had been in Palm Beach, Trump was suing Palm Beach County for $100m (£65m) alleging that officials had pressured the Federal Aviation Authority into a “deliberate and malicious” act by routing planes from the airport over Mar-a-Lago.

It is not that Trump shows any great clairvoyance, but his words resonate because there is such a vacuum of clear thinking in Washington and Western Europe

I remembered Trump and his anti-noise campaign when watching him in recent weeks being repeatedly interviewed as presidential candidate about the Middle East. The interviewers for television and newspapers were generally hostile, or at least patronising and incredulous, when Trump spoke positively about Russian intervention in Syria, the need to combat Isis and the disastrous state of Iraq and Libya. Most of what he was saying was common sense, but it is a measure of the degree to which propaganda slogans have replaced realistic discussion of these problems that his remarks were immediately dismissed or derided by politicians and the media.

Asked by an NBC news presenter if Iraq and Libya had been better off when Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were in power, a question most politicians would have dodged, Trump said: “Iraq is a disaster … Libya is not even a country. You can make the case, if you look at Libya, look at what we did there – it’s a mess. If you look at Saddam Hussein with Iraq, look what we did there – it’s a mess.”

This should not be controversial stuff. Many Iraqis and Libyans are glad to have got rid of the old dictators, but they have no doubt about the calamities that have befallen their countries since the change of regime. But how often in the British general election was David Cameron challenged for his part in reducing Libya to primal anarchy?

Speaking about the White House’s policy of supporting the Syrian armed opposition, Trump truthfully said the administration “doesn’t know who they are. They could be Isis. Assad is bad. Maybe these other people are worse.” He said he was bothered by “the concept of backing people they have absolutely no idea who they are”. Again, US officials admit that they have armed opposition fighters who, on entering Syria promptly handed their weapons over to Jabhat al-Nusra, the local representatives of al-Qaeda. Trump added: “I was talking to a general two days ago. He said: ‘We have no idea who these people are.’”

What is striking about these interviews is the self-confidence with which the American and British interviewers regurgitated gobbets of government propaganda and expressed surprise when Trump disagreed with them. The journalists questioning Trump appear to have accepted, without much thought and against all the evidence, the rebranding of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which is extremist Islamist and close to the Muslim Brotherhood, as anti-Assad “moderates” from the moment they were attacked by Russian aircraft and missiles.

Trump discounts the widespread belief that Putin wants to destroy these mythical moderates and for some unexplained reason will not attack Isis. He has objected strongly to long discredited nostrums such as “nation-building”, suggesting in another interview that it is wrong “to tell people who have [had] dictatorships or worse for centuries how to run their own countries”.

It is worth viewing or reading these interviews with Trump and taking them seriously, because in Britain and much of the United States, Trump is demonised as an exotic celebrity with no understanding of what is happening in the world. Also noticeable is the depressing degree to which the interviewers parrot an acritical establishment line on developments in Iraq, Libya and Syria. This media blindness compounds government misjudgements and prevents lessons being learned from previous disasters.

It is not that Trump shows any great clairvoyance, but his words resonate because there is such a vacuum of clear thinking in Washington and Western Europe about the wars that are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Most politicians are afraid of being pilloried as unpatriotic if they stray far from the official line. In Britain, debate on possible use of British aircraft in bombing Isis in Syria ignores the real political and military landscape in which there is a shortage of warplanes to drop bombs and allies on the ground able to identify targets.

It should by now be clear that defeating Isis and bringing an end to the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars can only be brought about by agreement between the five main outside powers involved in the war: the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. They alone have influence over allies and proxies inside Syria and Iraq to force them to negotiate seriously. This is very unlikely to happen while all sides inside and outside Syria believe that war still gives them the best chance to survive and to win. It is a measure of the failure of Western leaders to understand the crisis in the Middle East that, in speaking of it, none of them show the same clarity of mind as Donald Trump.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

January 22, 2019
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