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Presidential Picks in the Middle East

Feb
7
2008

Here in the Middle East, a region where politics, conspiracies and skullduggery are national pastimes, the American presidential race is keenly observed, if not always understood. Still, there’s a great deal of interest among Israelis and Arabs about who the nominees will be and what that person’s election will mean for the region.

So, let’s take a look at some of the regional attitudes toward the Big Three candidates.

John McCain

The senator from Arizona isn’t widely known here in the region, but what little opinion there is has settled on a single narrative: he’s no different from President George W. Bush, a staunch ally – Arabs might call him blindly so – to Israel, a hothead and the candidate most likely to get into a shooting war with Iran.

Given their druthers, most Arabs on the street would prefer not to see McCain in office.

“I think there is an instinctive aversion to any Republican candidate,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But she made it clear she was speaking about the so-called “Arab street” and not the governments of the region.

“There’s a substantial difference between the Arab street’s opinion and the Arab regimes,” she added. “I think for Arab regimes, perhaps they’d be uncomfortable with a Democratic candidate.”

The Lebanese are certainly uncomfortable with the Democrats, as evidenced by the unease that met Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus last year.

Hillary Clinton

When it comes to Sen. Hillary Clinton, there’s a sense of relief in the region. Her presidency is seen as a return to her husband’s policies – although that harms her in some circles because of President Clinton’s support for Iraq sanctions throughout the 1990s. Others remember the Clinton presidency fondly for its efforts – though flawed – to hammer out a real peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

No matter; she’s considered a strong supporter of Israel – New York City’s large Jewish population and her Hollywood ties are often darkly fretted over – and her support for Israel during the July 2006 war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah hasn’t won her any friends among the so-called “Axis of Resistance”: Syria, Iran and its proxy militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas. For them, Hillary Clinton is seen as a hawk. Her vote in 2002 authorizing the Iraq war still angers many in the region.

The best thing about Clinton, from an Arab perspective, is that she’s a known quality. But between Clinton and McCain, most observers see little difference.

Barack Obama

The one candidate that elicits any kind of excitement is Sen. Barack Obama. An African-American who speaks in soaring rhetoric and who is (wrongly) assumed to have some Muslim ties is irresistible to many.

“I would say there’s a cautious optimism about Obama,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “First of all, they (Arabs) expect a Democratic candidate to adopt a different policy, different means. They’re quite aware that the Democratic Party doesn’t endorse Bush’s methods.”

That said, no one thinks the Obama is going to abandon Israel any time soon. “Arabs know the constraints on every president,” she said.

Nonetheless, some circles in Israel are freaking out over the idea of an Obama presidency. Why? Because last year, in an off-the-cuff remark, he mentioned that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” This led David Adelman, a member of AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, to write a letter asking for clarification on this “deeply troubling” remark of Obama’s.

Obama explained in a debate last year that he was talking about the consequences of Palestinians’ failed leadership, but that hasn’t stopped the “Israel First” crowd from coming out of the woodwork.

He has also surrounded himself with, shall we say, “interesting” advisors – when it comes to Israel:

  • Samantha Power, a human rights activist and Harvard University professor sometimes accused of supporting the Walt-Mearsheimer view of American foreign policy – that the U.S. is hostage to Israel’s view of the region.
  • Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and who has ties to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan likes to toss out raging anti-Jewish statements and Obama has not seen fit to distance himself from Wright, whose church magazine last year gave Farrakhan an award.
  • George Soros, the philanthropic (and Jewish) billionaire, who is often accused as being hostile to Israel.
  • Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration official who the Jerusalem Post called a “Palestinian apologist.”
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski and Mark Brzezinski, who are assumed to be foes of Israel.
  • In each of these cases, his opponents are happily ginning up smear tactics against the Obama, seen in the region as the only person who might make significant policy changes for the U.S. policy. Significantly, the “Obama’s-a-Muslim” meme will not die. Look for it to reappear in a virulent form come the summer if he’s the nominee. When Arab media pick it up – it’s only a matter of time – the fictional association will become a reason for Arabs to support Obama and “proof” for Israel’s allies on the right that Obama is not presidential material.

    In the end, Obama’s voting record and more recent statements show him to be — like Clinton and McCain — a steadfast ally to the Jewish state. And Arab expectations and hope for the junior senator from Illinois are likely to be dashed on the rocky cliffs of reality should he find himself in the Oval Office.

    “There’s always the sense that African-Americans would be more sympathetic (to Arabs), because they’re oppressed too,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “But that wasn’t really the case with Colin Powell or Condi Rice, was it?”

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