On the subject of the US elections, Arabs are divided between a sceptical majority that sees no difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and a hopeful minority that believes Obama could narrow the gap between the Muslim world and the West.
The sceptics see both McCain and Obama as ardent supporters of Israel, and its doctrine of pre-emptive war, and as committed to US success in Afghanistan regardless of the costs.
The optimists, however, see important differences in the candidates’ discourse and approach.
I understand the sceptics’ rationale. Obama supports a wider war in Afghanistan, threatens Iran from Paris, and reckons Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel – the ‘miracle’ – is hardly worth Arab support.
As one Arab commentator warned: “The colour of Obama’s skin is no guarantee considering so many women behaved worse than men and so many blacks think like whites. Just as so many leftists proved to be worse warmongers than the right.”
And finally what guarantees that the US under Obama will be any less domineering or hegemonic?
Reasons for optimism
Yet, I think an Obama presidency would be better for both the US and the Arab world, not to say the entire Middle East, than a McCain presidency.
It has a far better chance of containing the dangerous escalation between the US and the Muslim world.
Needless to say, despite its direct influence in the region, Obama is running for the presidency of the US not the Arab world, and needs to be judged within such a context.
For the US to vote in an African-American progressive liberal would certainly mark a major departure from the hyper and violent conservatism of the Bush-McCain camps.
McCain’s Bush-like war agenda and his politics of fear have diminished tolerance and increased misunderstanding of the Middle East.
His zero-sum approach to the ongoing conflict – either total victory or sound defeat – has alienated the majority of the Arabs and Muslims who stand against Osama bin Laden but cannot withstand an open-ended (100 years!) military crusade.
Obama’s approach, on the other hand, reflects a nuanced understanding of regional power politics and global geopolitical reality.
He advocates broad international coalitions to combat terrorism and regional participation in solving Middle Eastern problems as he made clear in Berlin and Amman.
This could translate into a win-win situation where far less US military involvement would bring about more regional stability and greater US security.
The importance of Obama’s call for a more rational ‘war on terrorism’, although ridiculed by George Bush, should not be discounted even when the whole concept of the ‘war’ is flawed.
The US needs to improve relations with regional players who have been offended each time Bush spoke out on his ‘war on terrorism’.
To his credit, Obama has been against the war in Iraq from the very beginning. He opposed the Bush administration when its chose to attack Iraq even though it posed no credible threat to the US.
The illegal invasion of a sovereign country thousands of miles away has ended up destroying the foundation of the Iraqi state and, in the process, increased America’s non-state enemies who, unlike Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, cannot be boycotted, contained or held legally accountable for their actions.
Those foes, including religious and ideologically driven ‘terrorist’ groups and resistance movements, have been strengthened, not weakened, by Bush’s war. In fact, the Bush-McCain approach has become a new galvanising symbol for the extremists in the region.
Obama reckons the Taliban and al-Qaeda are re-emerging thanks to the Bush administration’s short attention span and its re-direction of US financial and military resources to Iraq.
Learning from experience
The Bush administration has started more fires than it has put out.
While its earlier intelligence and law enforcement campaign against the al-Qaeda network, leaders and militants has been effective to a large degree, its overall performance in the ‘war on terrorism’, especially in Iraq, has only fanned the flames of hatred and resistance.
As a result, anti-American groups are now able to tap into larger reservoirs of fresh recruits, extending from the belts of poverty around metropolitan cities to neighbourhood mosques in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The gray areas in which they can operate have grown, such as the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the weak grip of central government coupled with the presence of foreign soldiers produces chaos – terrorists’ favorite playing field.
Despite its fanciful talk about elections and democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush-McCain axes have in reality cultivated the direct opposite of what it ostensibly set out to accomplish.
Its pre-emptive wars have weakened the democratic and liberal movement in the region while its crusade has mobilised diverse and disconnected groups in a jihad against the US.
Recipe for change
An Obama presidency could transcend the negative perception of the US in the Middle East.
Towards that end, Obama must begin by helping to implement a just solution to the Palestinian question, which, according to various polls, would increase the proportion of Arabs who view the US favourably from little over ten per cent to over 50 per cent.
Obama’s multilateral approach to Iraq, coupled with an international effort to resolve outstanding regional problems, including the proliferation of unconventional weapons, could earn the US many more friends and empower the region’s subdued majority, which has been sidelined by Bush and bin Laden.
Four years ago, after I wrote an identical article about the Bush-Kerry presidential contest, American voters chose yet again the “strong and wrong over the smart and right” as the Democrats like to depict their position visa vis the Republicans.
This time they have a chance to correct their mistake.
I am not entirely sure what an Obama presidency would finally turn out to be, but a McCain presidency will most probably produce four, perhaps eight more disastrous Bush-like years.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera