‘Orientals’ and Yankee presidents

American presidents come and go, but few, if any, seem to have the will to change the status quo in the Middle East.

General Dwight David Ike Eisenhower (189
President Eisenhower successfully reined in Britain, France and Israel in their offensive against Egypt in 1956 [AFP]

Yankee presidents may come and go, but what does change are the spectacles through which they perceive the Middle East, especially its Arab component.

However, although Yankee presidents may change in size, speech, and “colour”, the Orientals’ image of Yankee presidents doesn’t seem to change much.

The Arab Spring dynamic

To an extent, the Arab Spring has taken some shine off the spangle of US presidential elections. Democracy in America (1840), as noted by the brilliant French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, still dazzles. The Arab world’s love-hate relationship with America has never dented the country’s credibility as a font of democratic experience and knowledge.

American presidential contests have always drawn a great deal of attention in the Arab world, and maybe even Arab funds. They draw political curiosity and close scrutiny, especially from those concerned with the possible election of a relatively pro-Arab president, one that could extricate Palestinians from their predicament and facilitate peace in the Middle East.

After the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections, the scene has changed. The first appearance in Tahrir Square of the Muslim Brotherhood’s victorious candidate, Muhammad Morsi, has captured the figurative sentiment of how presidential contests are beginning to be viewed within the Arab world. For the first time in Arab history, there is a democratically-elected Arab president. It is a historical and political moment that re-orders the way presidential contests are viewed in the Arab region.

The Arab masses no longer view US presidential elections as opportunities to commiserate about the state of president-for-life reality in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen amongst other dynastic polities. In the interim, presidents Muhammad Al-Magarif in Libya and Moncef Marzouqi in Tunisia somewhat assuage the inferiority complex owed to the huge contrast with other presidential consolidated democracies such as France and the US.

This outcome of the Arab Spring in terms of presidential elections is twofold. Firstly, the Arab Spring has thus far prevented the rise of Karzai-like presidential puppets. The popular mandates reduce the US and other major powers’ margin of influence and manipulation of Arab politics, at least in the Arab Spring geography. Note for instance, the public debate that went on in Egypt about US annual aid. This was never the case under Mubarak, for instance. Secondly, the Orientalist brand of “democratic deficiency”, often taken as a lack in values congenial to good government, was administered a major blow, calling for re-thinking of the Orientalist “Tower of Babel”.

Between 34 and 44

Ten tenants leased the White House, ten presidents separate Dwight, the 34th, and Barack, the 44th. When taken at face value, what could possibly separate a “David” and a “Hussein”?

With its Semitic lineage, David has strong Christian-Judaic resonance and symbolism. He is the Welsh people’s Patron Saint, and prolific Psalms writer. His biblical stature is not only regal, being the second king of Judah and Israel after Saul, but also a legendary saviour: He killed Goliath, who oppressed the Jews, with a stone hurled by a sling. Given the geography of the region, it would be a similar stone to that hurled in the millions by the children of the Palestinian Intifada at a similar Goliath. This modern-day Goliath’s immodesty or arrogance might have been injured, but is not fatally wounded – a point to revisit below.

Hussein derives from husn, goodness, including in looks. Hussein matches David’s sacredness, especially for Shia Muslims. The Imam (leader) of martyrs, noted for his courageous stand against unjust rule, leading to his death. 

And for a while, when he was elected as the tenth president to come after Eisenhower, all that mattered about Barack Obama in the Middle East was his middle name: A Hussein in the hottest seat of power in the world! The down-trodden Arab Middle Eastern, perennially bewildered by America, salivated at the goodness of a concept of a Hussein in the White House.

Palestine, at long last, could see the light of the day; and many other items on the wish-list of all kinds of minds began to day-dream, perhaps over-doing the “Hussein” bit in the middle – east and west can finally find a middle ground in Hussein, and Hussein could be the medium that Ronald, the 40th, William, the 42nd, George Herbert, the 41st before him served with varying degrees of skill.

 Empire – The post-American Middle East

The Eisenhower book

Eisenhower disagreed with the aggressors (Britain, France, and Israel) against Egypt in 1956, ordering them out of the Suez. The context may be different, but the leadership shown by Eisenhower remains a rare historical feat in US foreign policy-making in the Middle East. And in-between Eisenhower and Obama, there is a huge distance separating the newly re-elected American president between the ideal (even-handed peace brokering that gives the Palestinians a state) and the real (totally bias in favour of Israel and current policies by the Likud such as in relation to the construction of new settlements).

Obama’s administration has lent support to the Arab Spring. In doing so, it has spent nearly 1.5 billion dollars in various schemes and aid as a token of endorsement. However, one thing must be noted clearly: The US administration, regardless of who sat in the White House, had no choice but to support the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The manner of support and its substance varied in the three uprisings. In Libya and Tunisia it was fairly straightforward: Ditching Gaddafi and Ben Ali was not a problem, despite huge endorsement of Gaddafi’s sons by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

In Egypt, the Obama administration dithered, and to the last minute its statements were noted for ambiguity. At stake was not just equality for the Egyptian people; there was also the security of Israel, which matters a great deal to many US law-makers, Congressmen and Congresswomen. This is still under-researched and deserves thorough analysis of the various speech acts and decisions produced by the Obama administration before the ouster of Mubarak.

Thus far, Obama’s achievements in the Middle East may be summed up in a “speech act”, the 2009 Cairo speech – talk and no action in the eyes of many Arabs. This is in spite of the fact that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has restored some respect in American diplomacy, coming after Bush’s Condi Rice.

Hilary Clinton is the best US Secretary of State since the days of James Baker. She is more of a soft than hard power stateswoman, who one hopes would make a bid for the 2016 presidency. However, in the Middle East, political imperfections complicate the task of even the most “perfect” of Secretaries of State and diplomats.

In that distance, one finds a peace process tattered by US inertia, with Obama performing way below the bar raised by Carter’s Camp David Accords and Clinton’s Declaration of Principles. Obama inherited the idea of Palestinian statehood from his predecessors, but so far did no more than pay lip service to it.

Obama must take a leaf from the Eisenhower book: Sometimes resolve and a degree of risk are needed for impact-making in foreign policy. However, impact-making requires stock-taking and revision. Neither the US nor the EU has drawn lessons from their moral deficiency in supporting Arab dictatorships up to January-February 2011. They launched almost immediately into “mentoring” the new polities in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, in varying degrees, without pause to think about what went wrong in the chancelleries of power, from Paris to Washington, when endorsement of dictators was routine policy from administration to administration.

Thus US foreign policy calls for readjustment. In the context of the Arab Spring it must not be driven by the imperative of introducing “order” into the lives of “Orientals”. Security seems to be the constant that informs foreign policy-making before and after the Arab Spring; and this happens at the expense of development and a degree of self-determination such as in democratic reconstruction.

Beyond security and oil

Moreover, Western leaders seem hell bent on repeating the same mistakes of manipulating “elites”, recruiting them into their spheres of influence. In theory, many Western actors stand for institution-building and due process; in practice, it is largely business as usual seeking policy preferences and objectives through communication with elites, sometimes with limited legitimacy.

Policy failure is obvious in Bahrain, where conflict resolution is managed through dialogue with elites in Manama and Riyadh. Similarly, the impasse in the Palestinian question can be put down to preference to deal with select politicians in the polarised polity. So instead of using existing legal UN frameworks as the basis for engaging with peace-making, reference is made to “client” leaders who speak and act, in the absence of legitimate mandate, on behalf of the occluded populace, the Arab “Orientals”, often assumed to be silent, passive and in need of mentoring and guidance.

Obama’s second term will not be a promenade in the White House given the onerous tasks awaiting him on the domestic front, especially in a Congress dominated by the Republicans. Even with a leaf from the books of Eisenhower, Carter and Clinton, the Middle East will prove more difficult to navigate if the moral compass of America is limited by the blind spots of security, oil and client-politicians.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).