I exited Kennedy International Airport on 23 September. I hadn’t had my summer holiday yet, although summer had just ended, in theory. The “Big Apple” was just as hot and humid as Cairo. Plus, there’s no such thing as a holiday for those of us whose jobs involve watching and writing about the many fast-moving events in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Probably the most exciting of these take place in the US. It has never let me down when it comes to electrifying developments, especially since Trump’s election. Trump, personally, has much in common with Hollywood heroes, what with that height, that face, that shock of yellow hair and those ties of his that are either electric red or electric blue.
The story this time, when I arrived in the United States, had to do with a “whistleblower” report that propelled a torrent of Congressional Democrats to set into motion an impeachment process informed by a particular case the details of which are unfolding and that may lead to other cases and allegations.
I wonder whether anyone has been tempted to draw a comparison with the Titanic. The passengers on that ill-fated ship wore whistles around their necks when they leaped overboard so as to alert rescuers to their whereabouts. The whistle didn’t save many, but it might have worked for some. In all events, there is nothing in the current situation in Washington to suggest that the US is a sinking ship.
That would be a gross exaggeration. But, the House Democrats’ decision to proceed with investigations under the impeachment umbrella courts no small amount of damage to the reputation of the US and its values, even if the process ultimately comes to nothing. While the constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to initiate an impeachment process and approve articles of impeachment, it is the Senate that effectively tries the president and passes judgement. As long as the Republicans control Congress, a verdict against the president is not just difficult to obtain, it is impossible given the party’s current condition.
The last time a similar process occurred was when Bill Clinton was president. The House of Representatives found him guilty of lying under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, but it was impossible to secure the two-thirds majority in the Senate in order to pass the articles of impeachment. Bill Clinton emerged from the crisis intact and is now regarded as one of the finest of US presidents. Nixon was the only president to date who had been found guilty in impeachment hearings by a bipartisan majority, although he resigned before the process could be completed.
All that history seems so long ago now. Meanwhile, Trump has survived many no less difficult crises. Some had to do with sexual exploits, others with political exploits. The most serious revolved around the allegation that he had sought Russian support to secure his defeat of Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections.
The report by Mueller, the special counsel tasked with investigating Russian interference in the elections, established that such interference had taken place and that the president attempted to obstruct justice. However, he stopped short of formalising a charge, saying that this was the House of Representatives’ job.
At the time, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made it clear in no uncertain terms that she did not want to go down that path for fear it would divide the party and hamper its prospects in the next legislative and presidential elections. She could not predict at the time that a “whistleblower” would compel her to go down that path after all.
To those unfamiliar with the term, a “whistleblower” is an individual engaged to expose secretive information or activities within the government that could jeopardise national security or interests.
The person in this case is a CIA employee who, in the course of his/her duties, learned of a telephone conversation in which Trump tried to solicit the help of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in order to advance his electoral prospects by launching an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the Ukraine, in the hope that his would produce dirt that would harm the electoral prospects of Hunter’s father, former vice president Joe Biden, who is one of the foremost contenders to rival Trump in the 2020 elections. According to the whistleblower’s report, Trump used a $400 million aid package as a means to pressure Zelensky.
In his column for The Hill on 26 September, Niall Stanage outlined the five main aspects of the whistleblower’s complaint. First, the White House tried to hide the details of the president’s phone call to Zelensky. Second, Trump’s allies used leverage to get Ukraine to “play ball” contrary to their claim that there was no quid pro quo involving US aid in exchange for Zelensky’s help.
Third, the White House has hidden the details of other phone calls by uploading them onto an extra secure storage system for political reasons instead of legitimate national security reasons. Fourth, officials were deeply concerned by the activities of the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Fifth, Ukrainian officials, themselves, were aware that US aid could be in jeopardy.
As Stanage pointed out, these charges are serious. Yet, Trump still enjoys the support of his party and Republican members of both houses. He has also launched fierce counterattacks, accusing of Democrats of using the whistleblower’s account to serve their own ends instead of working to advance US interests and values.
Ultimately, according to experts and analysts, Trump may well win the next elections because there are no signs of erosion in his electoral “base”. In the end, therefore, this process will add to a long list of events that could harm the integrity of the presidency and the status of the US in the forthcoming months and maybe years.
To us in the Arab region, in which the US is instrumental to shaping regional balances between the Arabs and Russia, on the one hand, and the Arabs and Iran and Turkey, on the other, the domestic position of the president is very important. At a time when new crises are surfacing and flaring into military acts using advanced technologies, the tendency to look to Washington is natural.
In a region such as the Middle East, the US’s ability to act as a deterrent against terrorism or Iran, or as a supporter of US allies, could suffer as a consequence of the president’s political situation, as this could undermine his ability to mobilise US resources towards these ends. The problem is aggravated by the sharp and persistent divisions in US politics and society. The time when US domestic conditions stopped at the US western and eastern seaboards, because these draw the boundaries between domestic and foreign policies, is long gone.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.