Do we have a choice? I hope readers will take time to think about this question carefully, because the search for an answer is as difficult as dealing with the region’s complex and intractable problems.
Let’s take as our starting point here an old film about an ill-fated luxury liner and its wealthy passengers on a transatlantic cruise. The ship, as well the eponymously named film, is called the Poseidon, after the ancient Greek god of the sea.
As the opening credits near an end, we hear the voice of Reverend Frank Scott addressing some parishioners on board: “God is pretty busy. He has a plan for humanity that stretches beyond our comprehension. So we can’t expect Him to concern Himself with the individual.” Indicating that God endowed humankind with an intellect, the reverend tells his audience, “therefore, don’t pray to God to solve your problems. Pray to that part of God within you. Have the guts to fight for yourself. God wants brave souls... If you can’t win, at least try to win.”
The passengers are soon put through a test of their ability to apply this advice when a huge wave rears up and capsizes the ship, forcing them to rely on themselves in order to save themselves from impending doom as the ship sinks.
I would like my Arab readers to consider how this applies to us, metaphorically, after the many months of debate over whether US President Donald Trump would be elected to a second term and what this means to the Arab region. After all, Trump has stood by us in the face of Iranian intransigence and aggression, and he provided an accurate depiction of what is at stake in the Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the Nile waters.
Then came the point where the Democratic contestant, Joe Biden, gained the lead while some onlookers succumbed to a state of denial in the face of the loss of a president who had fallen behind in the polls and threatened legal challenge until Biden was declared victor and the remaining question was how the transition would take place.
No one can deny the US’s central importance in the world and to our region. But as Reverend Scott said in The Poseidon Adventure, God is pretty busy, and not just right now; He’s been pretty busy for a long time. The US climbed to the top of the peak of global power and influence after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, its path marked by the victory of the US-led coalition to liberate Kuwait and its role in the Madrid Conference on resolving the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict.
During the 20 years that followed, Washington established a unipolar global order with itself at the hub and with globalisation as the mode of interactions stretching from the liberal, democratic and capitalist West to the antithetical East. But the US emerged from these two decades of global engagement with a direct material loss of $7 trillion from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against global terrorism, whose reach did not exclude New York, Washington, Boston, London and Paris.
In fact, it was not Trump that decided it was time for the US to pull out of the Middle East; it was Obama. However, to the Middle East, Trump added the rest of the world. He thought that if the US was to become “great again” it had to confine itself to the land between the Atlantic and Pacific.
It is also a fact that there is nothing to indicate that Biden will shift tack significantly in this regard. His first aim is to reunite the land between the eastern and western seaboards. Then, if there is some surplus energy, it will go to revitalising the Western alliance, NATO, the EU portion of which has been weakened economically due to Brexit while, at the opposite corner, Turkey has been picking fights with Greece and Cyprus and causing no end of trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean in general.
So, the Almighty will still be pretty busy, as has always been the case, and mankind will still have to depend on themselves, on their hard and soft strengths and on minds that have the ability to make choices and to order preferences on complex issues where there is more than one choice.
Which brings us to the title of this article: Do we have a choice other than to wait to see how the balances pan out between the right and the left and between moderates and extremists at the end of this electoral season? The answer is, of course we do. Self-reliance is the option we need to consider and study, especially in light of our wealth of experience in difficult times when Arab regional cooperation had important strategic and economic payoffs when handling challenging and complex crises.
I hardly need to remind Arab readers of our experience in the wake of the great defeat in 1967 and how Arab assistance enabled Egypt to get back on its feet, wage the war of attrition and then come out ahead again in the 1973 War. For the purposes of that war, Syria and Saudi Arabia had been informed of Egypt’s plans, but no non-Arab powers had been consulted beforehand, not even the Soviet Union. Riyadh and other Arab oil exporters did not ask the US’s permission in order to use the oil weapon.
The decisions were entirely Arab decisions. True, a half century has passed since those glorious days, but such cases were neither the first nor last. Today, as we assess our strengths, we realise that despite all the disasters visited on the Arab region in the past decade, we are actually better off than ever. Thanks to some major reform programmes, we are better educated, better armed and we know each other better because of communication technologies and the movement of labour and investment.
The aim of this article is not to minimise the value of the US or the international order, but rather to emphasise our ability to protect our national security and to solve the problems of a region drained and fatigued by revolution, turmoil, conflict and the predations of outsiders near and far. The function of the Arab nation state today is the same as that undertaken by the state entity in other regional orders, namely to build alliances and coalitions that will counterbalance and deter other powers with hostile agendas and, simultaneously, to propose a regional programme based on cooperation and peace and inspired by the principles and criteria of human progress, as opposed to illusory retrograde slogans.
This combination of deterrent action and a homegrown regional programme is the alternative that can spare us from the strains of pinning our hopes on the results of elections taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Already, we have some good signs of how it can work, such as the oil and gas arrangements in the Eastern Mediterranean, the security zone in the Red Sea, and the actions to designate maritime borders and exclusive economic zones in order to better enable the countries involved to optimise their resources and capacities.
What we need now is more confidence, a willingness to transcend short-sighted rivalries, clearer identification and assessment of the national interests and domestic capacities of individual Arab states, and an interdependency that is solid enough to withstand the nerve-fraying outbursts of social media and rumourmongering about the fates of other nations.
The US is immersed in its own problems, Russia is adrift on its vast icy landscapes and China is at sea over whether to act as a great power or a Third World country. We have no choice but to depend on ourselves.
*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 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly