Hold your breath until US elects a president
Given Trump’s fickleness, aggressive character and isolationist policy, it is obvious that Arabs who put their honour and dignity above all other considerations would rather live with an intelligent, polite and internationalist Hillary than a man who finds no qualms in being vindictive and insulting
By Bashir Goth
A well known adage says: “When the US sneezes, the world catches a cold,” but we may also add “When America holds elections, the world holds its breath.”
United States presidential elections keep the world spellbound and more so this year due to the stark contrast between the two candidates, the unconventional and colourful business tycoon Donald Trump and the astute and ingenious veteran politician Hillary Clinton.
While for Americans “All politics is local”, the rest of the world watches it with great zest, analysing the election rhetoric for clues on tangible foreign policy agenda no matter how bizarre and absurd the narrative may sometimes look, particularly on the side of Donald Trump.
Although the campaign narrative can often be seen as a hawker’s pitch that doesn’t hold much water, let us weigh each candidate’s foreign policy agenda vis-a-vis the Middle East and Africa. But to do that we may need to have a quick look at US President Barack Obama’s legacy in the two regions because it is after all Obama’s record that Clinton would like to build on and Trump would like to demolish.
Obama’s rise to the presidency spawned an era of hope for the world. Africa’s reception of Obama’s election was ecstatic and his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo a few months later, in which he promised a new beginning between America and the Arabs was like a breath of fresh air to the Middle East and the Muslim world. Awarding the Noble Peace Prize to Obama was to celebrate this definitive moment in history and to underline the world’s rejection of president George W. Bush’s era of perpetual war and fearmongering, as well as to welcome an era of hope for a wise and transformative leadership at a time when the world was experiencing a financial crisis and economic uncertainty.
No doubt there was a daunting task waiting for the young president who was in many ways untraditional and untrained in the corridors of politics and culture of corporate America. And to the testimony of many economists, Obama successfully pulled the global economy out of its doldrums, but it is his foreign policy that remains contentious and this is where the world looks for clues to Hillary and Trump.
Trump views the Obama-Hillary foreign policy as one of “death, destruction and terrorism.” He accuses the Obama-Hillary policies of causing Syria’s disastrous civil war, Iraq’s total mess, the emergence of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Iran’s empowerment with nuclear weapons, and a $400 million (Dh1.47 billion) cash ransom payment.
And despite Trump’s cantankerous outbursts against Muslims, it looks like his argument against Obama’s record in the Middle East resonates with the people in the region. Even Trump’s tongue-in-cheek accusation of Obama as being the founder of Daesh was not farfetched in view of some Arabs who attribute the rise of Daesh to Obama’s lack of action.
Arab analysts lambast Obama’s policy of relinquishing the American leadership role in the Middle East to Russia and Iran. Obama’s criticism of America’s Gulf allies as being “free riders” in an interview with The Atlantic magazine provoked the ire of the Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia.
“No, Mr Obama. We are not the ‘free riders’ that to whom you refer. We lead from the front and we accept our mistakes and rectify them. We will continue to hold the American people as our ally and don’t forget that when the chips were down, and George Herbert Walker Bush sent American soldiers to repel with our troops Saddam’s aggression against Kuwait, soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with soldiers. Mr. Obama, that is who we are,” wrote Prince Turki Al Faisal in Arabnews. Others see this rupture of US-Arab relations as being irreparable and call the Gulf Arabs to start relying on their own capacity.
“Relying on the next US president — whoever that may be — does not seem a practical policy option, particularly when all of the front-runners for the position seem unlikely to reverse the shifts initiated by Obama. Bearing this in mind, the Arab Gulf states must continue to strengthen their own military capabilities, perhaps by building an even wider pan-Arab military coalition to protect their interests and provide for the collective security of Arab states, away from US interests and policies,” said Dr Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian academic and writer, in Gulf News.
On the other side, Hillary Clinton lauds Obama’s Middle East achievements, including decimating Al Qaida and killing Osama Bin Laden, bringing thousands of US troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, disabling Iran’s nuclear cap-ability, and forcing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to give up his chemical weapons. Obama defenders also say that blaming him for the unprecedented upheavals, particularly in the Middle East, “is like arriving in town after the tornado and blaming the Red Cross for the wreckage. History is more likely to give him credit for adopting a sober strategy and making it work,” says American columnist Steve Chapman.
Given Trump’s fickleness, aggressive character and isolationist policy, it is obvious that Arabs who put their honour and dignity above all other considerations would rather live with an intelligent, polite and internationalist Hillary than a man who finds no qualms in being vindictive and insulting.
They would rather hope Hillary has an Anwar Sadat moment in breaking with the legacy of her former boss and reinvigorating America’s active role in the Middle East.
Age of partnership
On the African side, Obama will be remembered for initiating an age of partnership that moved beyond assistance and foreign aid.
“Now America has been involved in Africa for decades. But we are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model of partnership between America and Africa — a partnership of equals that focuses on your capacity to solve problems, and your capacity to grow,” said Obama in his 2013 South Africa speech.
Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, which aims to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, could be considered Obama’s signature achievement that stands on par with Bill Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR).
The partnership was also further cemented in the first-ever and largest US-Africa Leaders Summit convened by Obama in 2014.
The choice for Africa is between the continuity of Obama’s legacy by Hillary, who visited 24 African countries during her tenure as Secretary of State and contributed to peace initiatives in many African nations, and between Trump, who blasted “African leaders for having insatiable desire for power and wealth,” and who professed that “Africa should be recolonised again for another 100 years because Africans are still under slavery, they know nothing about leadership and self-governance.”
Africa had its fair share of eccentric and flamboyant leaders in its history and Trump rightly fits on the list of such personalities that Africa wants to forget. Indeed, Trevor Noah, host of America’s Daily Show, nailed it in a segment in which he compared Donald Trump to African dictators and warlords.
“For me, as an African, there’s just something familiar about Trump that makes me feel at home,” he said. He then listed Trump’s bravado and flamboyance against former African dictators.
Africa has ample problems that need serious attention, serious thinking and difficult decisions, and I don’t think African leaders would be enchanted by outlandish eccentrics of a foreign leader, even if he was American.
Regardless of who ultimately wins the US elections, it is doubtful that either Africa or the Arab world will be rejoicing.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social, and cultural issues.