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The Interests of Arabs after the US Elections

The Interests of Arabs after the US Elections

Thursday, 29 October, 2020 - 08:30
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

The US elections are only a few days away. They may turn out to be not only the most consequential elections for the US in recent history, but also the world if Donald Trump is re-elected. What adds to the importance of these elections is that they are taking place amidst a debate on whether the US is losing it’s overwhelming dominance on the world stage.

While the overwhelming majority of the polls indicate that Biden will emerge as the winner in the US elections, it is not a done deal. There is still a chance that Trump will be re-elected. So let us consider the likely consequences on the foreign policy of both a new Trump and a Biden administration, particularly in the Middle East.

It is indisputable that Trump’s relationships with most countries have been complicated. If Trump has been a polarizing and controversial figure domestically, he is even more so internationally. This is particularly true when it comes to US traditional allies. European heavyweights, Germany and France have found it difficult to deal with a Trump administration.

On the other hand, despite the difficulties both Russia and China anticipated in dealing with and later experienced with Trump, both countries seem to prefer the continuation of a Trump administration to a democratic one.

A Russian friend once told me, when I asked why Moscow preferred dealing with Trump, his answer was revealing. This is exactly what he said, “because he is like Gorbachev “insinuating that he will accelerate the demise of the super power status of the US. It would not be surprising that Beijing, would harbor a similar attitude.

It would not be difficult to predict what policies a new Trump administration would pursue, both domestically and internationally. It would probably be the continuation of the America first policy, but executed more aggressively with even more scant regard for the interests of allies and friends.

Richard Haas, a prominent figure in the republican policy establishment and presently the President of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has so aptly captured the essence of what could be the Trump foreign policy doctrine as: “The Withdrawal Doctrine.”

As a result, multilateralism will be further undermined. NATO may be forced to the brink. The UN will struggle to survive. Environmental degradation will accelerate. The international trading system will be under even more severe stress. There will be no tolerance for disagreements. It would most likely be a more pronounced version of George W. Bush’s dictum of: “Either you are with us or you are against us”, the consequences of which our region still suffers from until this very day.

Yet, Trump will continue to strive to striking “deals” with both Russia and China, which, in theory, should create better conditions for resolving festering conflicts in the region, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya. But there will be confusion and unpredictability that will most likely accelerate the demise of US hegemony.

Meanwhile and until the relationship with Russia and China are regularized, I will venture the following predictions.

On the Middle East, Trump will probably not waiver from two fundamental positions: withdrawing US troops from the region and support for Israel. Everything else is subject to whims and driven by gut feelings.

We may end up with US disorderly disengagement, or miscalculated or unintentional escalation, all of which would further destabilize the region.

A Trump administration will continue in its maximum pressure policy towards Iran (as well as Syria), always hoping to get a new deal with Iran. A deal that may include new elements to meet the concerns of both the Arab countries and Israel. Such a deal, if realized, will not be fundamentally better than the present one.

On Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the focus will be on integrating Israel, politically and economically, in the region.

Having said that a new Trump administration may, in the short-run appear ready to cater to some Arab interests, whether that is on Iran, Yemen or even on the Nile waters dispute between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand and Ethiopia on the other. Even in Syria a speedy US withdrawal will be more likely with a Trump rather than a Biden administration. Once a deal with Iran is reached, it may well be an entirely new game for Washington.

On the other hand with a Biden administration, priority will be given to repairing relations with allies and multilateral institutions. Relations with both Russia and China will, at least initially, be testy. They will, however, veer away from “great power rivalry” and eventually revert to the traditional pattern, which involves both cooperation and healthy competition.

When it comes to the Middle East, a Biden administration will most likely revert to a more traditional US policy, but will have to balance between the principles that have traditionally anchored US foreign policy since World War II and its interests. This means that there will necessarily be a period of readjustment. Initially, relations with most Arab countries will be somewhat difficult. The issues of human rights will be prominent thereby complicating the relationship. Ultimately however interests will prevail and relations will be normalized, but the pace will differ from one country to another depending on the extent of US core interests.

Meanwhile, a Biden administration will attempt at winding down the “unnecessary wars”, in Iraq and Afghanistan, but will also seek to find a solution to wars where they play a marginal role such as Syria or where their allies are directly or indirectly involved. This will require a more coherent approach to resolving these conflicts, including reaching understandings with Russia, but also recalibrating the relationships with US allies who are party to these conflicts.

Priority will be given to rapidly resurrecting the JCPOA, reinforcing it with understandings that meet taking the security concerns of the Arab countries as well as Israel.

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a Biden administration will try to revive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on an internationally acceptable basis as long as Israel sticks to its commitment not to unilaterally annex Palestinian Territories.

On Syria, it will initially take a hard line with Damascus, Moscow and Ankara, until it reaches a new deal with Tehran and more general understandings with Moscow. Once that is achieved, it will adopt a more pragmatic policy that would help in realizing a political settlement in Syria.

Meanwhile, Arab governments will at least will be able to conduct business in Washington, navigating between an administration that values professionalism and an unruly Congress, as they have done in the past with both Republican or Democratic administrations.

Whatever the outcome of the US elections, Arab countries, will have to find ways to better secure their interests in a world where the US will be playing a progressively diminishing role.

Europe, Russia and China will probably accelerate the process of accommodating themselves to the relative decline of the US by seeking to restructure relations not only amongst themselves, but also with third countries. This will not be confined to economic matters, but will probably extend to the realm of the military and security.

Two fundamental questions face the Arab countries: Will they continue to align themselves to a declining US or seek new alliances with the EU, China and Russia? Will they be able to benefit from the short-term gains they may have acquired with a Trump administration and transform them into a basis to secure their long-term interests?

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