Arabs Try to Make Sense of What is Happening in the United States

How have contentious domestic crises in the United States impacted the Arab world’s perception of the global leader?

Two women begin to fight at a pro-law enforcement rally that clashed with counter protesters demonstrating against racial inequality, in Denver, Colorado, U.S. July 19, 2020. Kevin Mohatt/Reuters

In any other U.S. election year, political wrangling and maneuvering are enough to keep observers entertained and provide them with ample issues to debate.

But this year, against the backdrop of protests against racial discrimination and police brutality, and the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, which has divided the electorate on how it should be handled; the United States is going through what many say is an identity crisis that will inevitably impact the rest of the world. 

In a talk co-hosted by Harvard’s Kennedy School, two Egyptian scholars, Tarek Masoud and Karim Haggag, gathered to discuss the question of how the American political scene will affect the Middle East. This particular series, titled “USA 2020: The View from the Arab World”, is part of the Kennedy School’s fall 2020 Middle East Initiative (MEI)

Masoud, who is the Sultan Qaboos Bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School, explained that when foreigners look at the United States today, they shake their heads saying that the country is weaker and more fragile than it has ever been. While the wane of American power  itself is debatable, he said this impression overseas stems from things such as how U.S. President Donald Trump has mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests on racial discrimination in major cities. 

“We are used to hearing American pundits comment on the crises and dysfunctions of the Arab world, but now that it is the United States that is crisis-ridden and dysfunctional, we thought it only fitting that we should reach out to Arab intellectuals to help us make sense of it all,” said Masoud. 

Masoud, the director of the program, and MEI Visiting Fellow Haggag, who is a Professor of Practice at The American University in Cairo (AUC), presented their first guest, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, with some of the social and political challenges that have come to the fore in the United States, and how these have some in the Middle East worried.

Identity Crisis or Loss of Vision?

“I don’t think anybody can understand America until they actually visit, and fly from east to west, and west to east. I am saying this because you can understand the size of America, the wealth, the power, the monotony, and the diversity all in one. This allows you to understand the thought process in many degrees,” said Fahmy, founding Dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and an ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008.

Having been born in the United States and having spent much of his life managing Egypt’s relationship with the superpower, Fahmy agrees that America is in crisis. However, the crisis has more to do with the United States trying to figure out exactly what course it wants to take than merely partisan politics or racism.

“It’s not only about race. It’s about other aspects. Do you want to be an international power? Do you want to be in isolation? Do you want to think only in terms of immediate or long-term effects? Do you feel a responsibility toward the rest of the world, either allies or not? I would argue even, do you want to be domestically tolerant or intolerant? These are some of the things the country is going through, and it’s challenging,” explained Fahmy. 

The former foreign minister said the rest of the world views the United States from two perspectives. On the one hand is  ‘Hollywood’ and the ‘larger than life’ aspect of the American Dream; on the other is the perspective of political, military and economic power. 

In both those accounts, the image of the United States has been hurt, he says, and its status as a global leader and superpower that can do no wrong has been shaken.

This will push Americans and many overseas to rethink America’s position, and this exercise in itself is necessary because it will eventually lead to “a collective America, a tolerant America, and an America that supports international order”.

“Everything will be looked at more realistically and rationally which is good, because it is unfair to hold the country to a standard that is impossible to achieve.”

A New Crisis Vs. An Unresolved Issue

In 2020, Americans faced the harsh realities of persistent racial inequalities and discrimination, which Fahmy says had never been fully resolved.

In recent years, police brutality cases were often in the media and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, founded in 2013, began protesting against racism, police brutality, and for more policy changes that would enable ‘black liberation’. However, racism in the United States has existed ever since the colonial era. While the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 led to the abolition of slavery, discrimination continued in the form of legal and systemic segregation. Similar to BLM, between the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement began in the United States when many citizens wanted equal rights under the law. 

“I think what’s new [today] is the expectations. One would assume that you’ve gone through the issue of being more tolerant, that the United States would now be talking about a democratic system that is much more refined than it was in the 1960s; but to see that happening again raises the question of whether the initial questions back then were solved or not,” said Fahmy. 

This has also shaken the myth of American cultural supremacy. At one point, many looked to the United States as a role model, but the domestic issues which ferociously boiled to the surface in 2020 have left those “fans” backing away.

This has damaged the perception of America’s political spheres of influence. 

Fahmy alluded to the Truman Doctrine, which was established by former U.S. President Harry Truman during the Cold War to curb the Soviet Union’s expansion by ensuring security and support to all of America’s allies.

The United States at the time could provide security, but the situation today is uncertain. 

“People are questioning today if they can continue to [provide security]. Will America be a reliable security partner in the future? The problem isn’t that America needs to provide security for all, I am not a proponent of that. I actually believe we should all provide our own security but be assisted by friends and allies. However, if U.S. security is being questioned, this provides an incentive for adversaries to the country directly, and adversaries of allies to become more aggressive,” Fahmy said. 

Key Player in Regional Stability

In the Middle East, the United States has been traditionally viewed as a key player in regional stability, but recent politics have caused its allies and other countries to doubt Washington’s resolve and resilience. Haggag said that the overall U.S. posture toward the Middle East region has changed, and it’s been seen as pivoting towards Asia instead to counter China’s growing influence there. 

“This has been the case under the previous administration [Barack Obama] and an issue of continuity with this current administration. How does the Arab world relate to this changing posture of the United States towards the Middle East when for America, the Middle East doesn’t occupy the central place it once did in its foreign policy?” Haggag questioned. 

Asian states such as China and India have expanded their own influence over the rest of the world, and hence the ‘Pivot to Asia’ eventually came to be during Obama’s administration. Obama’s administration had previously stated how it sees major opportunities for the United States in Asia, including access to a new market all while protecting U.S. security interests in the region. 

As a result, Arabs have a fear that even a partial United States pullout from the Middle East will leave a power vacuum.

But Fahmy disagrees. While regional competition may exist with Russia, he argued, and slowly with China too, the size and power of American shoes are too big to fill.

“I would argue that the United States will continue to play a strong substantial role in the international paradigm at least for generations to come… But security concerns have to be dependent on every country’s capacity, locally and regionally,” said Fahmy. 

In his view, Arab countries need to be less dependent on the United States, but it’s not as if the country is  being replaced by another superpower. American policy in the region has changed, and the Arab world needs to understand Washington’s new capacities. 

You could argue that the United States is not involved in those arenas [Arab countries] by design. If you look at the last two American presidents, a powerful reason both Obama and Trump got elected is because they explicitly disavowed the interventions of the Bush administration, and other administrations, in the thorny politics of the Middle East,” said Masoud. 

At the same time, he added that Arab leaders are not looking for a United States that is as heavily involved as it once was in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, nor do they want a completely uninvolved U.S. Middle East policy, either. The key is in being moderate. 

Arab Support for Trump

But how does that explain Trump’s popularity among some regional leaders?

Haggag explained that, “there seems to be a dichotomy of Arab perception…The relationship between key Arab rulers, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and this president [Trump] seems to be favourable; but when it comes to citizens of Arab states, they do not view the United States president favourably.”

Fahmy explained that this dichotomy has nothing to do with the actual U.S. president, but rather the policies and the priorities of leaders. Arab leaders are torn between their own immediate concerns and strategic interests. 

“I can see how leaders, at least some in the Arab region, would be more in support of Donald Trump than the general public in the Arab region because of their own responsibilities. Major countries, whether the United States or my own country, need to be able to balance the immediate concerns and the strategic interests. We can’t play one versus the other,” said Fahmy. 

Masoud pinpointed that Arab leaders have a close relationship with Trump because they fear Iran’s growing military and political influence in the region, and the rise of violent extremist militia movements in countries such as Syria. “Trump says what they want to hear,” he added. 

The Middle East’s Gulf countries have long feared Iran’s influence and expansionism in the region, especially since Iraq collapsed after the 2003 invasion and could no longer serve as a security buffer. 

These oil-rich countries have looked on in shock as Iran exerted  influence over Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Yemeni affairs. For countries impacted, the Trump administration is known to be hostile to Iran, having withdrawn from the nuclear deal, and re-imposed sanctions in 2018. The hostility between Iran and the United States peaked with Trump’s presidency as the two countries were close to major military tension in the 2019/2020 Persian Gulf Crisis.

Irrespective of who is elected [November 3], a lot of Arab countries will have high points and low points and they will come in a different sequence,” said Fahmy. He went on to explain that the reason why Trump holds significant support from Arab leaders is because of their shared priorities, such as dealing with Iran and extremism. 

Fahmy explained that this is all a matter of priorities, in the sense that it may be easier to deal with Trump now in the short term, but in the longer term, it may be problematic policy-wise. “His positions are contrary to the traditional Arab rights. That will further fuel the difference between the public and authorities in Arab countries.” 

He says the more critical issue is how the United States has moved away from right and wrong in terms of international law, how the Middle East has suffered the consequences. Fahmy gave the example of the invasion of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that, as it turned out, did not even exist. There was no legal basis for the invasion and this explains how “when it comes to America’s political needs, even before the current president, they forgot right and wrong, and decided to go ahead with this plan because it was in their interests,” said Fahmy. 

Perhaps what sets Trump apart, Fahmy concluded, is that he enunciates these plans more openly. This goes back to an earlier point on how the identity crisis in the United States is similar to what the Middle East has been going through domestically and internally, he explained, linking immediate concerns with the long term needs that bring Arab leaders to be more in support of Trump than of Biden at this moment in time. 

“The United States is mixed up with Trump, and drawing the line depends on what the issue that concerns you is; and the same applies in the Middle East. In the case of immediate concerns and pressing issues, this is what draws some Arab leaders to Trump, and not the general public,” he said. 

Dania El Akkawi is associate editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

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