Friday,27 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Friday,27 April, 2018
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s first 100 days and the Arabs

There is an American political tradition that sees the first 100 days of a new president’s term in office as a kind of benchmark for assessing his administration’s performance and the extent to which it was able to fulfil his campaign pledges. That 100-day period ended 29 April. To Arab readers, the Trump administration’s successes or failures at home will certainly not be as important as its actions or stated positions that have a bearing on the interests and welfare of the countries and peoples of the Arab region. Trump has inherited a heavy burden from his predecessor Barack Obama. However, at this juncture, we should examine several major areas of concern to the Middle East and the Arab region that is plagued with terrorism and gripped by economic straits and standard of living problems.


THE ARAB SPRING: The Obama administration, at best, took the stance of encouraging change from afar. It tried to convey the impression to many in the Middle East that it was in favour of change, but it acted more in the nature of a bystander without any clear strategy. The result was confusion and chaos. In Libya it played the part of a “backseat driver”, as it described its role. In Egypt, while pretending neutrality, it allowed (so as not to say blessed) a transition to a semi-theocratic anti-modernist form of rule that had nothing in common with the secularist project for democratisation based on full and equal citizenship, rule of law and non-discrimination. Meanwhile, it let the situation in Syria deteriorate until terrorism burgeoned, militias drawn from all quarters of the world abounded and millions of people were driven from their homes. The Obama administration’s wavering with regard to how to resolve the crisis in Yemen was infuriating. It continued to deny Iranian intervention there until the plans laid by various political groups to steer Yemen to safety and to promote reform fell to shreds, with active assistance from Iran.

Judging by some clear signs that have emerged from the new administration, it openly acknowledges the detrimental role that Iran has played in Yemen and it wants to halt Iranian meddling there. The Trump administration has also taken a firm stance on the use of excessive violence in Syria and the intervention of foreign militias in the Syrian civil war, and it is playing an active role in the war against terrorism in both Iraq and Syria. In addition, it has backed away from discussing the domestic choices of Arab societies, in marked contrast to the lofty illusions propounded by the Obama administration.


IRAN: The Obama administration had a project for Iran that was informed either by ignorance or naivety. It had believed that an agreement that would curtail Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons and thereby remove it from the economic sanctions list would lead the Iranian people, with their youthful majority, to rise up against the rule of the mullahs. Clearly, the Obama administration did not have a thorough grasp of the nature of the regime in Tehran and its inflexible theocratic and doctrinal ideas. The former administration did nothing to stop that regime from, firstly, intervening in the affairs of Iran’s neighbours, and secondly, ceasing its production of long-range missiles. In fact, the Iranian regime read the Obama administration’s stances as an implicit green light to intervene in the region. Accordingly, Iranian activities expanded in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Moreover, the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was set on fire, in defiance of all diplomatic and international conventions.

The new administration has decidedly turned over a new leaf in Washington’s approach to Iran. A number of Trump administration officials have explicitly stated that they believe that Iran has destructive influence in the region and that it is behind many terrorist acts and that it funds and trains terrorist groups. The officials even revealed previous cases related to terrorist acts in Iraq, which they allege were undertaken by Iran against international coalition forces there. The Trump administration also expressed to Iraqi leaders, during their recent visit to Washington, its opposition to Iranian support for certain armed groups that are nominally subordinate to Baghdad. This focal area will see increased attention in the coming months during which Washington is likely to notch up economic and diplomatic pressures on Tehran as it moves to curtail the Iranian presence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other areas in the Arab region.


SYRIA: As the world has seen, a chemical attack against Khan Sheikhoun necessitated an immediate and urgent response from the new US administration. There followed an intensification in the processes of monitoring and halting all suspected of having a hand in the manufacture and transmission of these destructive weapons. Contrary to expectations, a renewed frigidity has arisen in relations between Moscow and Washington over a number of international issues, prime among them the Syrian crisis, which the new US administration hopes to set on the path to a radical solution that will save the Syrian people from further tragedy and prevent the Syrian illness from spilling over into neighbouring countries.


Looking ahead: The foregoing focal areas throw into relief a fourth: Washington’s need for allies able and willing to help steer the region out of the quagmires of terrorism, fragmentation and anarchy. It is in this context that we should see the visit to Washington by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman followed by that of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Saudi Arabia and Egypt — along with other Gulf countries and Jordan, of course — form the core of the lever needed to lift our region out of its current dark abyss. Egypt has underscored the importance of this regional axis on numerous occasions. Among the chief reasons for this is that the war against terrorism must be seen as a collective regional effort, as opposed to one undertaken separately by a single country. There are two types of terrorism: one is ideological, the other is the act of violence to implement the former. Both need to be confronted by collective efforts. The regional axis, which has coalesced for this purpose and which was crowned by President Al-Sisi’s recent visit to Riyadh, is the essential platform needed to save this region from the sea of violence and bloodshed that has engulfed it for seven years now. Without this axis, the loss will encompass all.

It is clear from the policies of the new administration and the visits by its senior officials that it is guided by new and different outlooks and that it does not intend to play the bystander watching wounds bleed, but rather that it wants to help staunch the bleeding that has gone on too long and generated environments that breed various forms of terrorism and barbarism. The new US outlook needs a partner. It is to be found in that axis that many now hope to see come to fruition in its fullest and most expansive form. Here it is necessary to underscore the major problem that has always haunted us, as Arabs: division and the illusion, entertained by some, that they can be spared the storm if they act on their own. It is a short-sighted attitude and, simultaneously, one that wreaks considerable harm in the short, mid and long terms.

The law that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts applies as much in politics as it does in nature. Our politicians need to understand this law very well if they want to optimise its value for Arab countries. If we help ourselves, we can work together with our friends to overcome the dangers we face. But if we cannot, we should not hold out great expectations from others.

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