Reading through the memoirs of former US president Barack Obama, A Promised Land, one reaches the conclusion that Arab governments, especially in the past, wasted time and resources to either appease or oppose the United States when it was in no way necessary. Some made a huge effort in the attempt to challenge Washington’s imagined power over them, avoiding US interference in their day-to-day affairs. Others unsealed their coffers and wasted billions of dollars, thinking this would make the US turn a deaf ear to their problems. Both were wrong.
“Contrary to the beliefs of many in the Arab world,” Obama writes in his nearly 800-page book, “the United States is not a grand puppet master whimsically pulling the strings of countries with which it does business.” As it turns out the idea that, because of its engagement in Middle East politics, the US made the Arab countries unable to take action or build up power, derailing their progress, is actually wrong. It’s a narrative regrettably rooted in the mindset of the Arab peoples even though it was proved wrong again and again. It is true that the United States has acted foolishly in various parts of the world at different times.
The attempt to impose an Americanised democracy in Somalia, for example, resulted in a lawless country living under the reign of terrorism and a state of havoc throughout the Horn of Africa. The desire for a regime change in Iraq because “this guy wanted to kill my father”, as George W Bush, Jr reportedly said of Saddam Hussein, resulted in a hugely divided Iraq still struggling to achieve normalcy. The use of excessive force to counter Al-Qaeda in a once civilised Afghanistan gave way to peace talks with the Qaeda-affiliated Taliban.
Though a superpower, the US remains a nation bound by the “business” it does with other countries, as Obama put it, and it has never really risked that business. When the US imposed sanctions on the Islamist regime of Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan, for example, it still imported the Sudanese gum Arabic necessary for such products as Coca Cola. The United States is always working to ensure that American interests are safeguarded and US spheres of influence are not breached.
But that does not mean meddling in the day-to-day running of other countries or enforcing its point of view on their governments now that they have learned the hard way how terrible the consequences can be. Such failures have cost the Americans dearly: loss of life, billions of dollars wasted on ineffective “media campaigns” to improve the US image, and most importantly the sense, passed from one Arab generation to the next, that the US wants to force a stereotyped model of democracy on people regardless of their own will. The US figures as the Great Satan or a colonial power hell-bent on instilling indecency among otherwise decent people.
Egypt is another example of US failure in the region. It was largely thanks to Obama’s famous statement “Now means now”, when furious protesters wanted Mubarak’s head on a spike, that the latter stepped down, leaving a huge power vacuum. After Mubarak’s fall, the Egyptians had their baptism of fire en route to the democratic transformation and many barked up the wrong tree by electing the Muslim Brotherhood. After they paid a heavy price, the average voter realised that the catchy slogans which the extremist group has advocated for 80 years, most notably the need to distance itself from such colonial powers as the United States, were but a veneer. The group was more than ready to align itself with the United States or even with the devil himself to stay in power.
Meanwhile, US failure to understand Arab culture has fuelled anti-US sentiment and discourse, especially since Washington continues to align itself blindly with Israel against the legitimate demands of the Arab peoples concerning the Palestinian cause, historically the Arabs’ central concern. Obama courageously admitted that the US was “indifferent” to the “searing humiliations endured by Palestinians living in occupied territory.”
In that department, Obama put it plainly that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have “inherited his father’s unabashed hostility toward Arabs”, and that “his personality won’t allow him any compromise or agreement.” Though shocking, Obama’s words are no surprise. It was not only Netanyahu who wanted everything. In 1972, one year before the Egyptian army humiliated Israel in the October War, Israel’s iron lady Golda Meir told AP her government would not give up in an inch of the land Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War.
The United States is a superpower and it needs to act like one. A country of strict law and order and a vibrant democracy should engage in good faith with the Arab peoples and listen to the voice of their governments when it comes to hectic issues. More explicitly, peoples in such war-torn countries as Syria and Iraq are likely to see campaigns defending their freedom of speech as a luxury at a time when they are “toiling” to secure their most basic needs. The Biden administration will have a hard time improving a US image tarnished under Trump, But it is Obama’s A Promised Land that is a must-read for those who would like to draw lessons on how to better manage their businesses with the world’s super power.
*The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly