US stories

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 5 Jul 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said anticipates the significance of the upcoming Jeddah summit


An important event is soon to take place in Jeddah: US President Joe Biden will meet with nine Arab heads of state. The meeting will be of unprecedented historic value, perhaps surpassed only by the meeting that occurred on 14 February 1945 between US president Franklyn Roosevelt and the Saudi monarch, king Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt’s Suez Canal. At the time, as today, humanity was in the grips of earth-shattering events. It was the final chapters of World War II and Roosevelt had come from the Yalta Conference which determined the fate of the post-war period. Today, the US president will be arriving in the Middle East soon after the G7 economic conference in Schloss Elmau, Germany, and after meeting with NATO members in Madrid, Spain. The purpose of both meetings was to determine the fate of the world during and after the Russian-Ukrainian war. 

When Biden meets the Arab leaders, Ukraine will be at the top of his agenda. This story opens with the Russian invasion of a “democratic” state, threatening European security and ending continent-wide peace in a manner unprecedented since World War II. The G7 meetings are no longer just about the economic affairs of the member states or the world. Participants also discuss major issues related to energy. Their last meeting would certainly have attempted to ascertain how the current war might be resolved in a way that ends Russia as a threat to Europe and ensures that it never reemerges in Tsarist or Soviet imperial form. The Middle East will have been slotted into this perspective in terms of the extent to which Russia, as well as China, have extended their influence in the region. The world has three major powers: the West led by the US, Russia and China. Iran is not a great power, but it remains a challenge and source of threat. It is a principal reason why the Jeddah summit was arranged.

Another, older story weaves into this. It relates to the career of the US president from the time he served as a senator in the early 1970s. Politically, that journey was saturated with America’s war in Vietnam and how the end of that war should usher in a return to the US’s original resolve not to engage in overseas conflict, but rather lead the world as a model of liberal democracy.

That “model” had to be militarily and economically strong enough not just in order to remain the foremost superpower in the world but also for all time. It was no coincidence that in many of his speeches and writings during his electoral campaign, Biden divided the world into two camps: democrats and authoritarians. In Jeddah, he will not have a second’s doubt that he is addressing members of the latter camp, regardless of their differing circumstances, evolutions and major reforms. But for the moment, he will set such thoughts aside in order to focus on his first priority: victory in the global battle against Russia and China. He also wants to solve the energy problem for international economic reasons and he wants the Arabs to have closer relations with Israel to serve his domestic calculus. Afterwards, he will undoubtedly return to previous fish to fry. 

The US is changing, like other countries, which brings us to a third story. Regardless of Biden’s actions in Europe and the Middle East, the fact remains that the US is not in the Biden era but in the post-Trump era. The US political system has considerable continuity, even after a president leaves office. Not only do Trump’s ideas retain a hold, he also laid the foundation for perpetuating them through the Supreme Court whose members, once appointed, serve for life should they so wish. By the time Trump’s term ended, six out of the nine Supreme Court justices, who shared his outlook, had the power to turn life in the US upside down.

Democracy is founded on the idea of building consensuses between different sociopolitical groups. In a previous era, when liberals made up the majority, the court ruled to sanction abortion across the country. In its initial Roe versus Wade case, the court made this a federally protected right that states could not infringe on. Last month, the conservative court reversed that ruling, handing the matter back to the states. In so doing, it opened the gates of hell. Now that many states have prohibited abortion, will a woman be able to travel to another state that permits it? Will it eventually become a nation-wide crime? The battle over this issue has divided an already divided US more than ever. Moreover, it is interweaving with other bitterly contentious issues, such as gun control. Although the constitution grants the right to bear arms, these ubiquitous weapons are massacring children in public schools and Black people in shopping centres.

A fourth story connects Trump and Biden, as though their fates are intertwined. It revolves around the storming of the Capitol Building on 6 January 2020, when Congress convened to ratify the results of the presidential elections, which had already been confirmed by the electoral college and the relevant federal committees. As early as his first candidacy, Trump tried to promote the falsehood that Democrats rig the polls. When he won in 2016, he ignored his disproven fiction only to revive it when he lost in 2020. He then called on his most fanatical, ultra-right and racist supporters to march on Congress to keep it from ratifying the results. That very morning he and his aides went to the gathering crowds to address them in person. He told them to save American democracy from the Democrats’ tampering and instructed them to summon the courage and resolve to go into the Capital Building to impose the will of the people. His followers did as he asked, but their assault failed and, once the storm had passed, Congress ratified the results of the ballot box.

Not only did the rioters leave considerable destruction in their wake, people also died that day. A criminal investigation was launched accordingly. At the same time, the House of Representatives formed a special committee to investigate links to the Oval Office. Witnesses were called, evidence was examined and bit by bit the facts were made available to the public and historical records. The American dilemma here is that only a handful of members of the Republican Party upheld the credibility of the elections while the majority backed Trump’s claim that they were forged. The majority of Republicans also held that the act of terrorism on the part of the gangs of fanatics who stormed the Capitol building was just an “opinion” and an exercise of “freedom of expression.”

As this story continues to unfold, it will not feature much in the way of the defence of democracy and exhibit little awareness on the sources of democratic failure such as populism, the tyranny of the majority or the corruption of the ruling minority. Its overwhelmingly dominant theme will be the Congressional midterm elections, the prelude to another story: the second half of President Biden’s term and perhaps the remainder of his career. It is something of an American convention that the opposition party prevails in the midterms. The effect is to tie the president’s hands or force him to govern by executive order which the next president can simply overturn. At the point it is not just the US’ stability that will be at stake but its democratic order.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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