Some in our part of the world believe that when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, it does not really matter whether the Democrats or the Republicans win the U.S. presidential election.
American policies in the region, they argue, are based on long-term strategies, feedback from think tanks and research centers and institutional decisions. The personality or personal views of a president do not matter much.
I beg to differ. While there is some truth to the argument, it will not help us or our issues much if we think along such lines.
Two important points need to be kept in mind here. First of all, to America, the Middle East is no longer an “external” matter or a small foreign-affair issue. In the 1980s, for example, the Cold War was more pressing and crucial to America than the Middle East.
There were times, in fact, when the Middle Easterners who cared about peace much used to dream of an active American role and engagement in the region. This is especially true, some will remember, during the Reagan era.
In this context, one may argue, though the argument may not be entirely correct, it did not matter much who came to the White House, because the region was only relatively, peripherally, important to America.
Today, however, the situation is entirely different. The Middle East — because of the economic recession in America, the oil, the armament market, the war on terror, the Arab Spring, the Islamists, Iran, Iraq and the unprecedented influence of Israel on the U.S. — is a top priority. As a matter of fact, because of Iraq, the so-called war on terror and the implications of the Arab Spring, the Middle East has almost become an internal issue for America.
As such, and with such heightened interest and engagement, it does make a difference who comes to the White House. During the presidential campaign, which ended in Mitt Romney’s decisive defeat, there was a clear difference as to what Romney would do if he were elected president and what Obama would.
The former is militarist, another George W. Bush. One of his main objectives was to “assert” America’s strength and influence. Additionally, his racist, neoconservative and even Zionist views on Palestine were obvious to all. Actually, several Americans who were interviewed on BBC stated clearly that they voted for Obama because of Romney’s “destructive” vision for the Middle East.
Obama, on the other hand, prefers diplomacy and dialogue to military intervention and force. Rather than heighten the tension and the wars in the region, he believes in ending both. His views on the Palestinian issue, despite his bias in favor of Israel and despite his opposition to the Palestinian bid to obtain non-state membership in the U.N., are much more balanced.
More importantly, he still believes in the two-state solution and in the rights of Palestinians within a negotiated settlement.
The second point to emphasize here is that the ultimate benefit the region may derive from having a Democrat president who favors diplomacy and is willing to engage the parties to the various conflicts and issues in dialogue does not depend on what this president himself will automatically do, but on what we ourselves do to encourage, even compel, the president to act. This is important.
What bothers one most about the argument of those who believe it does not matter what American president comes to power is precisely the false presumption that it all depends on what the Americans would do vis-à-vis our issues, and not what we can and should do ourselves.
This is a passive, self-defeating position.
If we want to make the best use of Obama’s second term — and because it is during the second term that he has the potential to be more assertive and less inhibited — we need to do a lot of work to make it possible for Obama to intervene more assertively and evenhandedly.
We should not forget that one of the very first things he did during his first term was to lay out a positive vision for peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and a mechanism for making peace happen. If he did not succeed, it was mainly because of the negative pressure that the Israeli government and its advocates in America exerted with the purpose of subverting his efforts. It is also due to the Arab world’s passivity.
Arab leaders need to assert themselves and articulate their positions more clearly and aggressively. One is indeed encouraged by timely acts such as His Majesty King Abdullah’s congratulatory call to Obama, during which he reminded him of the importance and urgency of addressing the Palestinian issue.
Arab leaders need to take every opportunity to compel a positive American intervention. Towards this end, they should crystallize a unified vision and approach, not as to what should happen in Palestine — because what should happen is all clear, as stated in the Arab Initiative of 2002 — but as to what should happen to encourage the American administration to be more involved and assertive, in an evenhanded way.
Yes, it makes a difference to us which American president comes to the White House, but the ultimate difference lies in what we can do to enable the American president to be more involved.
(Ahmad Y. Majdoubeh is a writer for The Jordan Times where this article was published on Nov. 16, 2012)