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Opinion: Obama’s Message to the Arabs | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US President Barack Obama (R) meets with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Naif of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington DC, on May 13, 2015. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

“Crisis? What crisis?” These three words brought down the labor government of former British Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979, and became part of the country’s political folklore. In late 1978 and early 1979 Britain was going through one of its worst political and economic crises as strikers protested government policies and the economic strains that completely paralyzed the country, in what became known as the “Winter of Discontent.” Nevertheless, Callaghan left crisis-stricken Britain to attend an economic summit in Guadeloupe. When asked by journalists about what he thought of the crisis, Callaghan, who had just arrived in Britain, played down the issue, arguing that people abroad were not aware of any crisis. The following day The Sun, a British tabloid, summarized Callaghan’s comments in a headline that read: “Crisis? What Crisis?” A few months later, the House of Commons passed a vote of no confidence on Callaghan’s government and those fateful three words went down in the annals of political history of Britain.

The purpose of this introduction is to illustrate a reality: when politicians insist there is no crisis, then you can be sure that there is one indeed. The statements we hear every now and then denying the existence of a crisis between Arab countries and the Obama administration confirm that the crisis is in fact deeper than we think. There are several reasons behind it, but perhaps the nuclear deal with Iran is the most important one. Arabs, particularly the Gulf States, suspect that Washington has turned its back on them by boosting relations with Tehran. They believe this prospect will inaugurate a new phase in terms of alliances and result in fueling regional conflicts. One Gulf official summarized the nuclear deal by saying: “America has sold us out, and at a cheap price indeed.”

But Gulf States are not the only ones who have lost trust in their American “ally.” A closer look at all the regional files, from the Syrian crisis and the situation in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, to the long-forgotten Palestinian cause, will show that feelings of doubt and skepticism permeate the way Arabs view US policies. Even with regards to the war on terror, there are still differences with Washington on the official level and doubts on the popular level in the Arab world.

The Obama administration has tried to reassure Arabs, whether by holding meetings, issuing statements, or giving interviews to hand-picked Arab media outlets ahead of the US–Arab summit at Camp David. Ironically, Obama’s recent interviews with the US media, most prominently with the New York Times and the Atlantic, have fueled Arabs’ doubts. In one such interview Obama strongly defended the deal with Iran, Washington’s strong strategic ties with Israel, and its commitment to Tel Aviv’s security and military superiority. He also criticized some Arab countries, emphasizing that capable Arab states should form a joint interventionist force to operate in crisis.

Obama’s message is that America does not wish to fight on behalf of Arabs in every crisis and that it will not intervene unless its interests come under threat. Another message is that Washington has grown tired of Arabs’ appeals for help and calls for intervention in every crisis, particularly since after every case of intervention anti-US voices emerge and extremist currents grow stronger in the Arab world. A third message is that America’s regional interests have changed, particularly following the shifts in the fields of energy and oil.

Arabs have made two mistakes. First, when they let emotions prevail over political considerations, turning a blind eye to the basic rule of Machiavellianism that defines Western politics where only interests, not friends or enemies, are permanent. Second, they failed to take Obama’s stances and statements seriously. Early in his first term in office, Obama said time and again that he was intent on improving US–Iranian ties. And during his first two years, Obama wrote twice to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He was also keen to address the Iranian people on several occasions and on every Persian New Year, sometimes sending his greetings to the Iranian leadership as well.

Arabs countries should not push for disrupting or shelving ties with the US, as some ultra-radical voices have been advocating. Such a step would be another major mistake. Foreign relations include as many differences as meeting points and mutual interests. And Arabs would learn a great deal from the past if they put interests above emotions in foreign policy and if they diversified their political and economic ties. It is equally important for Arabs to remember that their dispersion is what makes them look weak to others. Overcoming this state of dispersion would be, in my opinion, the touchstone and the most important lesson to be learned.