I must confess that writing a weekly column for Asharq Al-Awsat takes a certain strain. This writer firmly believes that the reader has a right to a well-rounded selection of topics on the Middle East and the world from someone whose academic and intellectual focus is the world.
But China, for example, doesn’t get its fair share of attention here, and Russia, which has become involved in this region in diverse and complex ways, from military intervention to building nuclear reactors, deserves more focus.
Europe, in recent months, has largely been reduced to Brexit and the fate of the EU, which now leaves us waiting for UK parliamentary elections on 12 December and keeping track of that flamboyant, Trump-like Boris Johnson. Certainly, Brazil, who’s leader, Bolsonaro, took centre stage in Saudi Arabia last week and underscored Riyadh’s emergent realisations regarding the diversity of its choices in the East and West, also merits attention. The problem is that the US always comes up with something that steals the light.
This is not just because of the US’s global centrality as a superpower, albeit not the only superpower in the fullest sense of the term. In fact, it’s mainly because US politics pack a certain sensationalism in their own right.
And what makes politics there more exciting these days is the presence of Donald Trump in the White House, not just as a president but as a celebrity intent on staying in the limelight of political events with round-the-clock tweets.
Last week, alone, President Trump starred in two major developments: the death of the Islamic State (IS) group terrorist leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, and the House of Representatives vote to formalise the impeachment process against him.
No other head of state in the world can boast of being at the centre of sensational events ranging from commando operations to investigatory probes. Or, even if some head of state of any other country were the subject of the latter, it would never be broadcast to the domestic and international public in such minute detail, hour after hour and day by day.
If the first question that arose following the military operation that led to the death of Al-Baghdadi together with his wife and children had to do with the intelligence, preparations, leaks, surveillance and actions on the part of various countries and movements that made it possible to track him down and kill him that day, the second obvious question was whether his death would bring an end to terrorism or even just to IS. The answer, of course, is equally obvious. Eliminating fundamentalist extremism and terrorism will take much more than one man’s death and the suicide of his two wives.
The question of the president’s impeachment is perhaps more exciting and more interesting because it has to do with the fate of the head of state of the most important country in the world up to now, and because behind the mysteries that the investigations are trying to clear up are many more secrets that are waiting to come out.
The purpose of the procedure is to establish whether the president had violated the constitution and his oath of office by trying to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up evidence to incriminate Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden who had served as US vice president under Barack Obama, in matters having to do with his business dealings in Ukraine.
What could amount to a criminal act here is whether Trump, in his communications with Zelensky, made the release of approximately $400 million in US military aid to Ukraine contingent on Zelensky’s compliance with his request to launch an investigation into Biden. It appears that Ukraine had little choice in this matter. At the same time, it is unclear what, precisely, the former US vice president’s son was doing in Ukraine (and China, as well, according to reports) that made Trump so fired up about the prospect of a criminally tainted Hunter Biden as an ace up his sleeve for his electoral campaign.
Although there is still a long way to go until the 2020 elections, a long electoral path is one of the US’s most distinguishing characteristics and it is a main reason why the US tends to steal the spotlight from other countries. The US may be a superpower in decline.
But maybe this is what President Trump wants, since he doesn’t see American world leadership as a means to disseminate “American values”, or the benefits of America’s economic might, markets and human and material resources. In fact, he sees it in quite the opposite light: as a means for US friends and allies to sap US might and as something that opens US borders to various forms of invasion on the part of certain human populations and undesirable values.
To Trump, values, security, reputation and the like are little more than commodities that should have a tangible return, in cash. He must be the only president in the history of the US who, whenever visiting a foreign country, makes a point of mentioning how many millions or billions of dollars the US has spent on that country.
Once the House of Representatives draws up and passes the articles of impeachment — the “indictment” — the process is handed to the Senate which acts as court and jury. Impeachment requires the approval of at least two-thirds of the members of that house.
Anything less and the president comes away not guilty, as occurred in the case of president Clinton who was subject to impeachment charges revolving around the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But whereas Clinton was nearing the end of his second term, the impeachment process, this time, comes as the US heads towards a presidential election in which the central question will be whether or not Trump wins a second term.
According to the results of 38 opinion polls, 51 per cent of US voters back the House of Representatives in moving ahead with the impeachment process while 42 per cent are opposed, and 47.6 per cent of respondents are in favour of impeaching and removing the president while 43.4 per cent are opposed. Unfortunately for the Democrats, presidential elections are not determined by the overall popular vote but by the Electoral College, an institution that reflects the federal nature of the US.
The Electoral College system gives each state a number of votes proportional to its relative demographic weight. The candidate that wins the majority of votes in a particular state wins all that state’s electoral college votes. Therefore, opinion polls expressing overall popular sentiment in the US do not reflect political realities. State-by-state opinion polls provide a more accurate gauge of Trump’s electoral prospects, especially when we recall that he won the last election not by the popular vote but by the Electoral College because of certain key states that swung from Democrat to Republican.
On the basis of recent polls, Trump’s position is pretty much the same as it was during the 2016 elections. If the elections were held today, he would carry all the swing states: Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Arizona and New Hampshire.
Thus, so far, his chances for a second term appear secure. But there remains the missing link: what the Congressional investigations bring to light, an important instalment in which will be the testimony of Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. The formal impeachment process in Congress has only just begun.
*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 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.