U.S. Election Symposium: Cairo

Editor's note: This essay is part of a symposium on the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The symposium comes with a twist: none of our contributors can vote in the election. As foreign citizens, each brings a less familiar voice to the debate, but, as intellectuals, documentarians, dissidents, and journalists, they bring interesting voices. Raphaël Glucksmann, Jonathan Freedland, Max Rodenbeck, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali offer arguments for and against John McCain and Barack Obama and much else besides.

There is a very simple answer to the question of which candidate, John McCain or Barack Obama, would be more effective in furthering American interests in the Middle East. The optimal candidate, irrespective of the policies he would actually pursue, will be the one who represents change.

Whatever course the United States chooses abroad, its most important asset will always be the goodwill of its friends, allies, and collaborators. This may be a cliché, but it also happens to be true. And it is a truth that one of the candidates, Barack Obama, has vigorously emphasized. His rival has made the same point, albeit less forcefully. But as a fellow Republican, and particularly as a staunch supporter of the Iraq adventure, John McCain inherits the tarnished legacy bequeathed by George W. Bush. McCain represents continuity, and in the context of the Middle East, this is a very large handicap.

Evidence of America’s troubles can be seen even on so small a scale as at a recent diplomatic dinner in an Arab capital, where a senior State Department official could be heard struggling to counter polite but insistent criticism that the Bush administration had erred in neglecting the Palestinian issue. Why, George W. Bush was the very first president to declare support for a Palestinian state, blustered the American. He was the first to describe Gaza and the West Bank as “occupied” territory. “Yeah, right,” scoffed a local businessman, sotto voce. “The occupation started in 1967, and you just noticed now?”

Like most of the guests, and indeed like all too many people on American embassy guest lists, this businessman has family and work ties in the States, and considers himself generally predisposed to American views. Yet even among the narrow, if wealthy and influential, class of Middle Easterners who count themselves among America’s natural friends, the dismay produced by eight years of reckless and incompetent American policy runs deep.

These people would be frightened by a world without America. It is not only the place to which they turn as an investment haven, or to educate their children. America is also a place they have seen instinctively as a guarantor, less in the geopolitical sense than in the sense of an exuberantly experimental society whose wealth and stability, as well as inclusiveness, generate a gravitational pull that alternative models struggle against, but typically fail to match. These are people who have drawn strength, if only unconsciously, from notions of universal progress toward an America-tinted modernism. They have lent this strength to resisting, most often quietly, but sometimes loudly and certainly persistently, the demagoguery either of their own oppressive regimes or of the obscurantist zealots who challenge them.

Max Rodenbeck is the Middle East correspondent for The Economist.

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