I write these lines in the dying hours of the US Presidential election. It is fair to say that this election has led to a form of global fatigue. In the Arab world, that sentiment is now running deep, and is coupled with a sense of resignation. Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East captured this well in their latest cover, entitled “President Whoever”! Yet I believe this election remains of grave importance for the world and our region.
As an Arab, I support Hillary Clinton. I do this by choice and necessity. Hillary is a formidable candidate that I see as the best possible choice in terms of consequences for the region and the world. However, her outspoken and exaggerated support for Israel, and her lack of statements of support for Palestinian rights during the campaign, make her a difficult candidate to support. But no matter what, she presents a far better choice than Donald Trump.
Strangely, this view does not seem to be widely held in the Arab world. A number of fellow Arabs are supporting Donald Trump through some convoluted process of mental gymnastics. There seems to be a view taking shape in the region whereby Trump, despite his open racism against Muslims and Arabs, is seen as a disruptor of American “politics as usual.” That’s regarded as a good thing, considering that American foreign policy has so far been disastrous in the Middle East. This support for Trump is premised on a rationale similar to that bizarre formula he uses to attract African American voters: “What do you have to lose?” I reject this method of reasoning.
By and large, Arab ambivalence towards Trump and this race is based on a deep dislike, at times outright hatred, for Hillary Clinton. Hillary is seen as a huge supporter of Israel, a hawk whose policies resulted in the collapse of Libya and Syria, a supporter of the Iraq war in 2003, and worse. As Clinton put it at the end of the first debate: “I think by the end of the night I will be blamed for everything!”
Many Arabs fear that the Washington establishment is pushing and praying for a Hillary victory because she will embark on many more military adventures in the region. This fear is real. Almost all American interventions in the Arab world have been perceived to be on the wrong side of history and justice! American interventions have served Israeli interests and regional dictatorships, or both at the same time. Americans should never believe the lie, repeated mindlessly by politicians and mainstream media, that America has sided with the forces of democracy and freedom; at least not in the Arab world. That was never the case.
However, any attempt to paint Hillary as a neocon interventionist is misguided and unfair. In fact, the neocon US establishment has been battling Hillary relentlessly since 1992, doing everything they could to disqualify her, or even imprison her! If she is so much the neocon standard bearer, it doesn’t stand to reason that she would be the subject of so much vitriol and plotting by that very establishment.
The defense of Hillary, from an Arab perspective, can be focused on debunking the following lies:
1. “Hillary would be the most pro-Israel President Ever”
There’s a sad reality at work here. The overall influence of Israel on American politics is so pervasive, there is simply no possibility of having any President without him or her being completely aligned with Israel to the detriment of basic Palestinian rights. It’s as simple as that. Other than Bernie Sanders, there has not been a serious candidate for US president in the last 50 years who was not completely committed to Israel, right or wrong.
The only factor that could ever change that is a reinvigorated and active Arab lobby. Neither Hillary nor anyone else can change that.
Bottom line, nothing is likely to change on this account in a Hillary presidency. Having said that, there are tiny glimmers of hope. There are several statements from Hillary’s time as First Lady that show a real sense of understanding of the injustice done to Palestinians.
These statements were tempered by realpolitik as soon as Hillary entered active politics, as the weight of the pro-Israel US establishment came down on her as it does against any active politician in Congress or the Executive.
Another glimmer of hope here is the future First Gentleman: Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are the only Presidents since 1980 to exercise any form of real pressure on Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Bill Clinton’s push in the Camp David talks in 2000 was essentially the last time an American President tried to use the authority of the Oval Office to try and compel a lasting peace. He may have failed but you cannot fault him for pushing as hard as he could and not being content to let the stalemate drag on indefinitely, as Bush Jr. and Obama have done. There is a real chance that Hillary would follow in her husband’s footsteps and work to break the futile impasse between Israel and Palestine, and force the intransigent Likud government to come to the negotiating table.
2. Hillary has been playing games in Syria and this resulted in the creation of ISIS”
Not sure where to start really with debunking this issue. Let’s start with a simple timeline. Hillary Clinton started winding down her time as Secretary of State in the summer of 2012, and left her post entirely in January 2013. The Syrian civil war was very much in its early stages by the time Secretary Clinton left her post. By all accounts, the rise of ISIS only really began in 2013. Other unsavory groups like Al Nusra (a Qaeda branch of all things!) also started to establish their presence and control of the Syrian revolution (or whatever one calls it at this stage) well after Hillary faded into the sunset of her diplomatic career.
The other cause of the frenzy around Clinton and her supposed support of ISIS is the endless stream of boredom and silliness that is Assange’s WikiLeaks. First, a word about these types of leaks: I cannot imagine how any government, let alone global diplomacy, can function if every email or conversation is published or aired to the whole world. Government officials must have some private space in which they can work, reflect and brainstorm without it being diffused all over web. It’s an exercise in futility to adopt a standard whereby all acts of government or foreign affairs must be conducted in full public view. A global and 24-hour theatrical performance where everyone on planet earth can sit and watch as a reality TV show. It just doesn’t work.
Assange is getting his knickers in a twist about leaked conversations in which Hillary seems to acknowledge that many regional powers have financed ISIS and co, and that the war in Syria is supported by Israel. The fact that certain regional forces have facilitated the rise of ISIS is the biggest tragedy of our time. But the fact that the Secretary of State would discuss that or opine on it is not as cataclysmic as Assange wants you to believe. Yes, the biggest failing of the US in the Syrian tragedy is that Obama did not step in and stop so many parties who overtly supported ISIS and other extremist groups for short term political gains. But this lack of action is an issue that lies at Obama’s door and not Hillary’s, as her interaction with the issue was very early on. Also, this reluctance of the US to deal with troublesome regional forces is not an issue that one Secretary of State created. This is a deep seated issue that runs through the entire apparatus of the US government, and that has sadly been going on since the end of World War 2.
But more importantly, the leaks actually show that Hillary wanted to put pressure on those in the region that may support ISIS. She doesn’t condone their actions. In fact, it is the opposite!
3. “Hillary caused all the carnage in Libya”
This lie defies the facts and is an act of selective memory on a mass scale. In 2011, when the amazing crowds in Tunis and Cairo inspired Arabs and the world, so many thought we were witnessing the beginning of an extraordinary renaissance in the region. So when the universally reviled Ghadafi regime seemed on the brink of succumbing to another popular revolt, it is fair to say that the vast majority of Arabs were supportive of the intervention by France, the US and others to support the revolution. Almost all Arabs cheered and celebrated when Ghadafi’s regime fell.
But now, in a major act of mental acrobatics and in light of the mess that eventually prevailed in Libya, many Arabs are asking us to blame the whole Libya quagmire on Hillary! This is intellectually dishonest to say the least.
Furthermore, it is a commonly accepted view that the intervention in Libya was largely driven by Sarkozy and the French government. The US only joined in after the momentum had been established in favor of military intervention.
In short, many Arabs are essentially blaming Hillary for the entire record of US policy in the Middle East over the last 50 years. While it is understandable that there would be such a level of cynicism, it’s also not fair to do so, especially in a year in which the alternative is so unpalatable.
It is my view that Hillary will be a good President in terms of her overall foreign policy and the region. Regarding Israel, it is anyone’s guess whether she maintains the status quo, or takes on a more active role like her husband to force peace negotiations. In contrast, Trump has declared that, on his first day in office, he will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
However, when it comes to other major regional issues, I think Hillary will be a more firm and involved President than Obama. The sad reality is that Obama failed to show strength and leadership in the region at the precise moment it needed it most. America’s sins are numerous in the region, culminating in the horrific Iraq war of 2003 that has arguably led to all the mess we are in today. However, when it came to the Arab spring and its aftermath, what was needed was an engaged America that would have stood more firmly on the right side of history. What we got was an American president that acted timidly and with cerebral paralysis. Hillary will be different. She will engage and work to fix issues. Standing by the sidelines is not an option.
There are many specific issues on which Hillary will be infinitely better than her opponent. She is committed to lowering regional tension and making a success for all of the deal with Iran, while Trump is apparently committed to dismantling the deal as soon as he assumes power. Trump’s son says that dismantling that deal is what got his father to enter the race! And yet there are no specifics at all as to how Trump will achieve that and what his alternative plan is.
But one also has to be a realist. There is no way to predict how Hillary would handle every issue and challenge that plague the Middle East. But one thing is clear: you need someone with an even and balanced temperament, someone who tries to understand the issues and who would react with measure to developments. That someone is Clinton. Trump is undoubtedly the most erratic candidate to ever run for the presidency. It’s highly dangerous, given all the ultra delicate issues facing the world and the region, to throw into the mix a person with a temperament as wild and uneven as his.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the need for us Arabs to register the strongest protest vote against the bigotry of Trump. If you’re an Arab American, you can do this at the ballot box. If not, you can do it by speaking out against the highly reprehensible positions of Trump. I’ve wondered for a while now why it is that I have such a strong reaction of anger against Trump and all that he represents. I believe it is rooted in me being an Arab. We have had more than our fair share in the region of tyrants, corrupt businessmen and, generally speaking, the self obsessed. We can identify a truly crooked and arrogant man a mile off! We know firsthand how the promises of a one-man savior bandwagon always ends in tears. We also know far too well that the expression of sectarian and racially based views will always lead to bloody strife. That such statements are never just populist innuendo. I disagree strongly with all those self appointed experts who tell you things like “well he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just using it to be elected and he won’t act on it when in power.” We Arabs can tell you from bitter experience that they always do act on it. Hillary is absolutely right to remind us all of that brilliant quote of Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
And finally, the symbolic value of this election should not be lost on us Arabs. We must actually embrace it. Yes, it matters that Hillary is a woman. And there is no greater message than for all of us to be inspired by the prospect of the first woman President of the US, especially in the context of our own battles for equal rights in so many countries in the region and when the woman in question is running against someone whose sexism is as blatant as his.
Hillary, if elected, will have a lot to prove to the region. I am not saying it’s guaranteed she will do right by us all. But I could not be more certain of the fact that she deserves a chance and she’s a million times better than her opponent. So let’s quit the fatalistic approach to life and politics that can make some indifferent to the prospect of a Trump presidency. Let us be for something far more positive. And yes we will hold Hillary as President to a tough standard, and we will hope that perhaps it takes a woman to right some of the terrible wrongs of US foreign policy in our region.
Photo: Mark Nozell/Flickr