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US elections: From Nasser to Al-Assad | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In a televised interview on the eve of the 1968 US elections, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser courted the US Republican Party, saying that the Egyptians people respected the American people and their model of civilization, but resented the policies of President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) who stood beside Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Documents later uncovered in western archives revealed that the Egyptian president ignored peace talks with President Johnson, which could have led to the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Nasser preferred to wait for the results of the US elections, wrongly believing that the forthcoming president would grant him more than Johnson. This resulted in a huge strategic loss for Egypt and a costly war of attrition.

In 1969, when Richard Nixon was elected as the new US president, Nasser addressed a telegram to the president-elect, attempting to woo him. The telegram read “what I recall since meeting you in Cairo in 1963 convinces me that the trust shown in you by the American people will create an important opportunity in terms of the international situation.” It is clear that Nasser, the outspoken nationalist and radical anti-western demagogue, was secretly sparing no effort in entreating the US leadership. However the problem was not the attempt to move closer to America and away from the Soviet Union. Rather, the problem was that he failed to perceive that his domestic and foreign policy was the problem, instead believing that what was happening abroad in the US could change the course of his bad luck. Nasser was wrong, He believed – as some Arab leaders still do – that the problem is not in his own policies, but rather in the policies of the US.

Anybody who reviews the documents that have been released by the US State Department or British National Archives, in terms of ambassador’s correspondence – or even the reports published by Cambridge University last year – will notice that every Arab leader believes he understands American politics. However in reality, they only understand some of its processes, not to mention their own personal relationships with some American politicians. It is clear that there is some delusional or “utopian” thinking on the part of these officials – or their advisers – which ignores the true nature of American domestic politics.

When Americans turned out on Tuesday to cast their ballots, there were some in the Middle East anticipating the results as Nasser’s did. Some argued that if Barack Obama secured a second term it will ensure that he is better able to deal with pressing issues, such as supporting the Syrian rebels against the Bashar al-Assad regime that is committing war crimes against its own people, not to mention taking a firmer line against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and even restarting the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. However others believe that a victory for Republican challenger Mitt Romney would be better for the region, or at least America’s regional allies, because Obama lacks a clear and firm strategy for the Middle East. As for Romney, there is a state of division over him, with some saying that he lacks experience, as well fixed views regarding the Middle East like his opponent. Some argue that the fact that Romney is a centrist Republican means the restoration of the Ronald Reagan model, namely support for America’s allies and a focus on the forces that threaten regional security.

In my opinion, it is not good to rely on the US elections in this manner, not because America is not important as a world power, but rather because moderate regional states should be pursuing regional policies to achieve their own interests, rather than waiting for the election results of a foreign country. Let us take, for example, the Syrian issue; countries such as Turkey and some Gulf states took action, to challenge the activities of the Syrian regime against its own people, and there has even been talk about financing military defectors and establishing a transitional government. However since that time we have seen greater reluctance, and the Syrian rebels have not been provided with quality arms, nor have efforts succeeded in uniting the Syrian opposition. Some analysts have blamed all this on the US administration, which is hesitant to provide the Syrian rebels with arms. In addition to this, there are some who have cited the recent US rejection of the Syrian National Council [SNC] as evidence of the lack of seriousness on the part of the Obama administration in toppling Assad. Turkey and the Gulf states’ problem is that they are relying on the US administration, and did not plan in advance for the repercussions of their decisions or provide the necessary means and equipment not just to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but to build a state of democratic state in its place. The arrival of Romney or the survival of Obama may not change the reality on the ground one iota.

States often act in their own interests, and Turkey and the Gulf States have to build an international alliance based on the international community’s interests at large in the overthrow a regime that is supporting terrorism and intimidating its own citizens. They, before anyone else, must prepare Syria for the transitional phase. In a 2009 joint meeting between Bashar al-Assad and John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, al-Assad informed his guest that he was looking forward to the election of President Obama. In response, Kerry promised al-Assad that President Obama would work to withdraw US troops from Iraq. In an apparent demonstration of self-importance, which was viewed as weakness on the part of the new US president, al-Assad answered “it is not one of our objectives to humiliate the US.” There can be no doubt that al-Assad today is aware of what Nasser learnt too late, that the solution does not necessarily come from the US elections, but rather by changing the political behavior of the regime itself.