No winner for the Middle East in US election

The best the Middle East can hope for Obama to secure a second term in the White House
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
By Ed Attwood
Sun 08 Jan 2012 02:17 PM

First it was Mitt, then it was Rick. Then Herman, then Newt, and for a short period it was Ron. Right now, it’s looking like the ball is back in Mitt’s court, although Rick (a different one) looks to have made a strong showing. Michele hasn’t made much of an impression, and sadly – for the loonies and the neutrals – Sarah didn’t show up at all.

We are, of course, talking about the Republican primary. It only happens once every four years (or not at all if there’s an incumbent GOP president), and we should therefore enjoy the gaffes and the pratfalls while they last. One of the above names, alarmingly, will go on to contest the US presidency with Barack Obama in November.

In any normal year, the Republicans would be odds-on to defeat Obama, who has presided over a stodgy economy and high unemployment levels. Those are hardly his fault, of course, but American voters may not wish to remember the president’s inaugural speech in 2008, in which he warned that challenges the US would face “are serious and many”.

So why will the Republicans have such a tough time unseating Obama? Since 2008, when centrist candidate John McCain lost out to his Democrat counterpart, the party has moved inexorably to the right, propelled by the populist Tea Party. As American elections are fought and won in the centre, there is a growing realisation that Mitt Romney, the relatively centrist former governor of Massachusetts, is the only candidate in with a shot of beating Obama. The moderate, Jon Huntsman, hasn’t even had a look-in.

But what does all this mean for the Middle East? A quick review of Republican candidates’ statements about the Arab world tends to reveal at best ignorance, and at worst, bigotry.

Take Newt Gingrich, for example. Once the speaker of the US House of Representatives – and thus, worryingly, next up for the top job if a disaster should befall the president and vice-president – one would hope that Gingrich would have a decent grip on foreign policy. However, he distinguished himself last month by calling the Palestinians “an invented people” – happily kicking decades of diplomacy down the drain.

Then take Herman Cain. Although he has now left the race, the former pizza baron claimed in November that more than half of American Muslims were extremists, adding, for good measure, that he would never appoint a Muslim to his cabinet.

There’s Ron Paul, who has frequently said that US financial aid to the Middle East should be completely eliminated.

And then there’s Michele Bachmann, the Sarah Palin of 2012, who bowed out of the race last week. Never shy of demonstrating her jaw-dropping lack of knowledge of events going on outside her own house, she has described the Arab Spring as being caused by “radicals”, forgotten which continent Libya is in, and called for the closure of the US embassy in Tehran. It will not escape readers of Arabian Business that the Americans haven’t had an embassy in Iran since 1979.

The sad conclusion to all this is that Republicans seem to believe that the American electorate will plump for candidates that have a hawkish or isolationist view on the Middle East. And despite a promising start, even President Obama has contributed little in the way of peace in the region.

But there is a faint hope on the horizon. A second – and final – term for Obama would free the president from the need to pander to conservatives in order to win re-election. And he has already repeatedly expressed his frustration with the stalling tactics employed by Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. The chance that Obama would focus more on the region over the next four years may be a slim one, but it’s the only positive outcome that the Middle East can hope for in the 2012 election.

(Ed Attwood is the deputy editor of Arabian Business. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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