Sam Menassa

The Americans Have Their Elections, and We Our Interests

The US elections have never taken this route, alien to Western democracies in general, nor have US elections ever garnered so much internal and external interest.

US internal unrest and unprecedented polarization have become so extreme that doubts have been raised about the elections’ integrity and institutions’ legitimacy. At the same time, some are skeptical that the transition of power will be peaceful. All of this has made many states reluctant to congratulate President-Elect Joe Biden. Foremost among them Russia, with Vladimir Putin following the vote-counting process and election results meticulously. Russia is followed by China, whose congratulations were around a week late, indicating that it is not excited about a Democrat succeeding Donald Trump.

No one denies that this chaos demonstrated the flaws in the US electoral system and process and destabilized democratic practice at large in the world’s most powerful country, especially at the level of the ruling elites. Indeed, the political debate on social media reminds observers of that seen in the third world and undemocratic states.

Does this mean that the US will become turbulent, unstable, and rife with internal strife? The answer is no, because no matter how sharp the attacks on the US democratic process become, it nonetheless remains stronger than we think. It is capable of healing itself, and this is what we are witnessing today as votes are recounted.

Most of the electoral analyses which examine demographic, racial, and ethnic voting patterns demonstrate that what had been said about a split in US society along these lines, racially between whites and blacks, or, ethnically, over immigration, is not accurate. The split is partisan and political, not more and not less. President Donald Trump’s character and his untraditional behavior have perhaps made its acuteness more apparent. What was said about a civil war is a joke; the protests, like the celebrations, were peaceful and did not exceed the bounds that we are used to seeing in the US, despite the armed marches we saw in particular places. We will likely see power peacefully transferred to the president-elect, but not in accordance with the traditions and principles abided by throughout US history and not with the smoothness that presidents’ mandates have begun and ended over the past 250 years.

Perhaps, it is best for us Arabs to leave US issues to Americans. Those among us betting on the lawsuits, appeals, and chaos they are heralding would be better off if they distanced themselves. Let us focus on the steps needed to deal with the forthcoming changes in the US and US behavior towards the Middle East and issues that concern us as Arab states considered allies or friends of Washington.

We already know the contours of the newly elected Democrat administration’s policies, and the president-elect has elaborated on them during his electoral campaign and the few days after being elected. In advance, we can say that his foreign policy will not be an exact copy of that of his Democrat predecessor Barack Obama, because the world, in its West and East, has changed significantly over the past four years, whereby it would not be an exaggeration to say that if Obama returned to power he would change his policies. Our region is not exempt from this change, and much new input has to be factored into the regional equation. The legacy of the obdurate nationalist discourse is no longer useful, and it has become essential that we become aware that cooperation and partnership do not imply dependence, dissolution, or congruence.

We say all of this out of a concern that Arab states grasp the new administration’s approach and how they will alter their policies and stances towards the most central dilemmas they face, which can be summed to five: Iran’s role in the region and its expansionist interventionist policy, the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, the battle against terrorism and extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the processes of normalizing relations with Israel.

At this stage, before the president-elect is sworn into office on January 20, the Arabs need to crystalize their positions on these issues and their vision for how to deal with them. Firstly, they must determine their policies and secondly, they must decide on their demands of the new administration. Clarifying stances starts with reaching a joint Arab vision on such issues. Unfortunately, the impossibility of reaching a unified Arab position is more apparent today than it had ever been in the past. For this reason, the immense burden of forming a path that determines policies falls on Washington’s friends and allies, especially the Gulf states. In this context, it must be pointed out that working with the president-elect’s team, at this stage, is more important than working with the president-elect himself, and that briefing the next president’s team is a pressing task for the Arab states.

Regarding the Iran dilemma, we must make it clear that we seek healthy and peaceful relations with the Iranian regime and are therefore not absolutely opposed to potential US-Iranian settlements. Our concern is that such agreements are not reached at the expense of our security and identity, that they do not lead to our societies’ disintegration by provoking sectarian and minoritarian strife through the actions of Iran's proxies tasked with establishing statelets within states.

On the issue of the wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, we must stress the urgency of putting an end to the failed states phenomenon because of its disastrous political, security, and humanitarian repercussions on the whole world. We should also emphasize the importance of curbing the ambitions of regional and international players, shrinking their swollen influence to their natural size, as well as expressing our intention to enter the club of democratic countries.

As for terrorism, extremism, and militant political Islam, total clarity has become pressing. Just like Washington, decades later, has come to realize that there is no distinction between Sunni and Shiite terrorism, on our part, we also have to realize that terrorism, in all its forms, is terrorism, and extremism is extremism. The Arab position on this issue must be crystal clear, and we must abandon the customary addition of an exculpatory “but” and the weak arguments that follow it.

Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of the two-state solution, the Gulf states and other US-allies Arab states, such as Egypt and Jordan, must pressure the Americans into adopting a balanced and fair political position. This is especially pertinent today after the normalization process began. We are aware that Washington will not abandon Israel’s security and interests. Nonetheless, we must push it to take Arab interests into account, especially those of the Palestinians.

Just as crucial as determining what we want from the US is forming a clear vision of what we, as Arab states, can do to help solve some of these dilemmas, as some of them are beyond our capacities, such as the Iranian nuclear issue and the Palestinian question. We can also contribute to resolving other critical issues that are of mutual concern, besides those that concern us directly, especially issues related to the climate, environment, water, and desertification.

We will not be able to define what we want from America and what we can offer to solve the regions’ problems unless rational and pragmatic Arab voices are loud and clear in Washington’s decision-making circles. They must express a clear vision of what is to be done to build a new partnership. We can’t just sit back and wait for the presidential election results to be declared. What is required, to repeat, is that we leave the Americans to deal with their issues alone and work on solidifying an Arab position and influencing American policy. We should not allow it to use our differences, which it knows very well, against us.