The U.S. Presidential Election: What it May, or May Not, Mean for the Middle East

Since I am using this blog as a portfolio of sorts for my writing, I am going to start posting the articles that I have had published for print magazines that do not feature their content online. As things stand, this consists of a whopping . . . two articles. This right here is my FIRST article EVER published, for Jordan’s very own Living Well magazine in the June 2012 issue (PDF version here). I was immensely proud of this petty achievement, though a bit miffed at the fact that my boss at the PR agency I was working for at the time insisted that I publish under a pseudonym (the agency has offices in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both mentioned in the article in a negative fashion). So here it is, my analysis of the 2012 presidential contest and how it relates to the Middle East. Enjoy!

President Barack Obama

Governor Mitt Romney

As the United States struggles to find its way in the turbulent affairs of the Middle East, the prospect of either Democratic candidate Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney altering America’s position in the region is remote. Despite some minor differences in diplomatic style, humanitarian rhetoric (or lack thereof), and tone towards Israel, neither candidate has much room to maneuver within the rigidly-maintained status quo of U.S. policy in the region.

The Israel Lobby

If one is to honestly discuss U.S. presidential politics, America’s “special” relationship with Israel must be given top priority. Despite the common perception in the Arab/Muslim world that Israel controls the U.S. political system as part of a global Jewish conspiracy, the less dramatic truth is that America’s political system has weaknesses that special interest groups are adept at exploiting. Specifically, groups that funnel cash to electoral contestants have outsized influence in the world of U.S. politics, and one such highly-effective group happens to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

A must-read for anyone interested in the role of the Israel’s powerful American backers in U.S. Middle East policy

Jewish groups like AIPAC are not the only ones advocating on Israel’s behalf; for reasons of their own, America’s politically active and vocal evangelical Christian population also supports Israeli lobbying efforts. This sect of Christianity believes that the growth of Israel as a Jewish state is a necessary pre-requisite for the onset of the Apocalypse, also known as the “End of Days.” Not only does this demographic believe in the biblical apocalyptic prophesy, they also believe that they can actively contribute to its fulfillment. As a result of these lobbying efforts by both Christians and Jews, American politicians have little flexibility when it comes to dealing with the Jewish state.

Furthermore, the Israel lobby has undue influence in the U.S. media, which continues to propagate the Israeli narrative that the country is constantly threatened by the Arab hordes at its borders. Although this narrative may have been relevant in the era of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, it is a bit harder to swallow now that Israel has two peace agreements – one with Jordan and the other with Egypt – as well as de facto peace agreements with the rest of the Arab world. However, rocket attacks from non-state actors in the Gaza Strip and South Lebanon allow Israel to continue playing the victim in the U.S. media, despite its status as the sole nuclear-armed, regional military hegemon.

While there are growing movements among both Jews and Christians in the U.S. to push Israel towards a fair two-state solution with the Palestinians, these movements have a long way to go before they match the political muscle of AIPAC and its ilk. It remains to be seen if they ever will. In the meantime, the U.S. government continues to use all carrot and no stick when dealing with the Israelis. With over three billion dollars a year in financial and military aid to Israel, there is simply not much more carrot the U.S. can offer. Without the threat of the stick (cutting military aid for example), Israel has no motivation to stop its settlement expansion in the West Bank or its siege of the Gaza Strip.

In addition to the enmity that America’s “special” friendship with Israel earns it in the Arab/Muslim world, the relationship has the potential to drag the U.S. into yet another military conflict in the region (read: with Iran). This possibility is especially likely in an election year, when President Obama will face strong political pressure from Republican candidate Mitt Romney to provide unconditional support in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether the Israelis will take such a military gamble, and whether Obama can politically afford to stay on the sidelines, is anybody’s guess.

Conceivably, a second-term American president could attempt to use more stick and less carrot when attempting to coax Israel to the table with the Palestinians. Freed from concern about another re-election campaign, President Obama could drag the Israelis to the table to negotiate a two-state solution in good faith. In this regard, an Obama presidential victory holds the ever-so faint possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace that a Republican victory does not.

The Arab Spring

With regional protest and revolutionary movements reshaping the Middle East, an analysis of Obama and Romney’s positions on the Arab Spring is crucial. Like any other country, America’s first priority is its strategic interests. When its pursuit of strategic interests overlaps with its liberal values, the American government pats itself on the back as the global defender of freedom and justice. More often than not, such an overlap does not exist when it comes to U.S. policies in the Middle East. For instance, the U.S. supports the Saudi regime, which happens to be intolerant to minority religious groups, oppressive to women, and remains entirely undemocratic. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia’s conservative, theocratic values are antithetical to American liberalism, the U.S. not only continues to buy Saudi oil, but also sells the autocratic state billions of dollars in military hardware. Unwilling to jeopardize its oil supply, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the hard-line regime’s brutal crushing of Shi’a protests in Eastern Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2011.

Saudi troops roll into Bahrain to help crush its protest movement

Similarly in Bahrain, peaceful protests that began in February 2011 were harshly dealt with by the country’s monarchy, an ugly reality that was also ignored by President Obama. While the U.S. has strongly condemned the actions of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council, discussion of Bahrain has been largely absent. The presence of the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain is undoubtedly a factor in this deafening silence.

Depending on the outcome of the presidential election, America’s relationships with the countries involved in the Arab Spring may change in some cases while remaining the same in others. Despite Obama’s lofty liberal rhetoric directed towards the peoples of the Middle East, he has proven himself to be a classic foreign-policy realist when it comes to action. In countries where the U.S. has strategic interests (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for example), condemnation of regime brutality from Obama have been muted. In the case of Syria, where fighting in urban areas makes direct military intervention a non-option, Obama has chosen to pass the buck to other Arab countries interested in seeing the departure of Bashar al-Assad. When it comes to the supporting the Gulf state monarchies and chipping away at the Assad regime, it is unlikely that a President Romney would deviate from Obama’s realist agenda.

In other Arab countries, a Romney victory could affect the nature of several bi-lateral relationships. In contrast to Obama’s deep interest in engaging the region and all of the players involved, Romney will not have room to politically maneuver when it comes to the rising power of Islamists in several post-revolutionary governments. In Egypt and Tunisia, citizens have elected Islamist governments (with Libya potentially joining the Islamist ensemble). This trend is worrying for the Republican electorate, who tend to be weary of political Islam and the notion of Islamic Sharia law, whether it is in the U.S. or abroad.

Conservative Christians in the U.S. – an important part of the Republican party’s base  – see themselves as having shared religious ties with Christian minority populations in Arab countries and therefore perceive Islamist governments (fairly elected or not) as a threat to their co-religionists. In the case of a Romney victory, expect to see icy relations with the Islamist governments in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Jordan-U.S. Relations

In the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, few believe that there will be much change following the U.S. presidential contest. With the election coming up in November, Jordanians interviewed for this article remarked that there was little coverage of the Republican nomination process in the local media. A rare exception was local and regional media coverage of former Republican candidate Newt Gingrich’s public denial of the existence of the Palestinians as a “people.” The remarks – incendiary in Jordan considering the country’s sizeable Palestinian population – momentarily spurred a surge in the already high negatives of the Republican Party.

Jordanians keen on following the race mainly turn to English-language news sources like the BBC and CNN to stay informed. For these election watchers, there was the perception of a clear distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties; one Jordanian positively described the Democrats as “more open-minded when it comes to international affairs, religion, acceptance of different cultures, and gays and lesbians.” Republicans were termed “arrogant” by another respondent when discussing their approach to international affairs.

Despite the stark contrast in Jordanians’ general views of Democrats and Republicans, respondents did not feel that an Obama victory would bring any more benefits to the region than a Romney victory. While some predicted that Obama would be more conciliatory towards the Palestinians in terms of public statements and tone, it is widely recognized that both parties face the same political realities. As one Jordanian professional put it, “It doesn’t matter who wins; the policy direction will stay the same.”

The Status Quo

While the U.S. government may be deeply involved in developments in the Middle East, the fact is that the American people themselves are not. The uprisings in Syria and Bahrain have captured the attention of the international media, but most Americans would not be able to explain who is pitted against whom in these conflicts, or even be able to locate these countries on a map. Political and military experts in the U.S. State Department and Pentagon are developing regional policies based on strategic interests, not on America’s liberal values. Occasionally domestic political forces – the Israel lobby being a prime example – disrupt careful planning by these experts.

Regardless of who wins the 2012 U.S. presidential election in November, America’s foreign policy in the region will carry on as before. The U.S. will pursue its interests, with reformers and revolutionaries only gaining America’s blessing if it suits these interests. American politicians will continue to tell voters that their country is a beacon of freedom and justice in the world, while those in the Middle East looking to the U.S. for leadership will shake their heads in puzzlement over America’s contrasting words and actions. As the prominent American journalist Henry Adams once said, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

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