Saturday, September 27, 2008

How Important Are 2008 US Elections to Arab Society?

September 23, 2008

East Meredith, New York

For over two centuries, Americans have been active in the Middle East, and Middle East people have been active in America, through tourism, trade, education, art, religion, culture, oil, national security and migration.

For Arabs, American education remains attractive today, even when foreign policy in Washington seems unfriendly. The number of American universities in the Arab world is on the increase. American business is thriving in many Arab countries. Equally, Arab businessmen find excellent investment opportunities in the US. America remains an active ally for many Arab countries in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, lead states in the region, are pro-West in their political orientation.

While Americans find serious differences between the two presidential candidates, especially on domestic issues, the Arab world needs not be too anxious about who will win the 2008 elections. US presidential election-spin augments the differences between the two contenders and makes them look miles apart on every issue. In reality, the two contenders are centrists; Washington politics changes more slowly than one would hope. Leadership counts but systems often overpower individual initiatives.

Neither of the two US presidential candidates is likely to shake the solid foundations of US relations in the Middle East. Neither Obama nor McCain is expected to inhibit existing programs of educational, cultural, military and economic exchange between the two worlds.

But political events do affect the pace, the character and the quality of sharing between Americans and Arabs. For example, the tragedy of 9/11 has shaken the foundations of American-Muslim relations. In this case Arabs severely violated the rules of the political game.

But many Arabs do not see 9/11 the way Americans process this twenty-first century tragedy. Americans resent the idea of comparing 9/11 with similar events of trauma in the Middle East.

Does 9/11 have a parallel on the Arab side? Could the June war of 1967, an event that eliminated Palestine from the map and placed Washington and Tel Aviv in a strategic regional alliance, be considered the Arab world’s 9/11? This game changing event did also threaten the basis of American-Arab relations. Comparing milestone suffering is not an attempt to erase the moral indecency of 9/11.

In looking ahead, US-Arab relations will continue to expand, but there is always a threat of a future cataclysmic political happening that would severely interrupt these relations for decades to come. In contrast, there is also the hope for settling the Arab-American-Israeli conflict in the foreseeable future.

No one can predict the development of US-Middle East relations, given the complexity of factors of push and pull, of love and hate, of waxing and waning of -Arab and American- fundamentalism, of wise and unwise decision-making; and lastly no one can predict the impact of the international context in which US-Arab relations evolve.

In looking back, the character of US intervention in the Middle East has changed in recent decades. Starting with the second half of the twentieth century American involvement in this oil rich region shifted in emphasis from the social to the political. With this change of emphasis the character of foreign intervention has become increasingly inconsistent.

Consider the inconsistency in US foreign policy over the last six decades. In 1946 the US pressured the Soviets out of Iran. But in 1953 the CIA ousted the popular and democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister. In 1956 America pressured France, Britain and Israel out of Egypt. But in 1967 the US supported Israel in the June war, a war that changed America’s image in the region. In 1979 former President Carter mediated a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, a historic and giant move in Arab-Jewish coexistence. But in1958 and then in 1983 the US deployed the Marines in Lebanon to support two unpopular regimes.

The Middle East is thirsty for US foreign relations that are consistent with the past, consistent with rhetoric and consistent in standards. Could Washington listen more to Arab friends who care about America and Israel, but who also think of the good for the entire Middle East and beyond? In his recent book “The Arab Center”, Dr Marwan Muasher, one of Washington’s trusted friends, concludes his critical analysis of US-Arab relations with one simple idea: To win the hearts of Muslims, America must shift from being a patron to being a partner. Muasher adds that for Arabs, to win the confidence of America and Israel, they must foster freedom and peace within their national and regional borders. From Israel, Muasher demands a policy of sincere commitment to the peace process.

Will Obama and McCain listen to Muasher and his likes? Both Obama and McCain support the peace process, albeit with different degrees of objectivity. Both also would work for Arab democratization, but with different styles. Finally, both contenders count on America’s enabling role through sound foreign policy, but with varying perspectives. On Middle East-American relations the next president will hopefully have more freedom, more courage and more creativity in decision making as he responds to the challenges ahead.


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