Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

Of liberals, secularists, Islamists and other labels

I want to discuss here the labels assigned to Arab political parties and politicians (if you want to get to that directly skip till the end of the following quotes), but before let me point out what started this post — a fine piece by Nasser Rabbat on Steve Walt's blog, Arab secularism and its discontent:

Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no.

Many good points he explores each in turn, before concluding:

Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.

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Why I root for Ron Paul

I've been thinking a lot about Ron Paul and the Republican primaries lately. I am a social libertarian but don't like many of Paul's small-government ideas (or, for that matter, that he named his son after Ayn Rand). But I think he has the best foreign policy ideas out there, ones against maintaining an endless empire of US bases in the Middle East and against foreign aid. I really like this argument by Philip Weiss:

Ron Paul represents the opportunity to push an antiwar agenda inside the center-ring political system. His candidacy might actually force Romney and Obama into more antiwar positions. If he disappears, that prospect all but vanishes. An attack on Iran might actually be in the balance. If he sticks around, we might actually have a presidential debate in which candidates openly dispute aid to Israel and an attack on Iran and what Paul has called apartheid conditions on the West Bank, an honesty no other candidate is capable of.

If you care about the antiwar issue, joining with Ron Paul is like seculars joining with the Muslim Brothers to get rid of Mubarak. You needed a broad coalition to push Hosni out. And in the end, that coalition did the impossible; it moved Obama. Obama wouldn't have jumped in if not for Tahrir. He needed political cover. A broad coalition gave it to him.

But what if leftwing secular social-media types had stood around Tahrir Square asking the smart question, Hey what do these folks-- Muslim Brothers and Salafis-- want to do with the role of women in politics? They would never have gotten rid of Mubarak.

I wouldn't stress the Tahrir comparison too much, but there are good reasons to support Ron Paul among the sorry lot of Republican candidates this batch and the frankly unappetizing prospect of Obama being re-elected. Precisely because Paul brings in, along some wacky libertarian ideas, this anti-war, anti-imperialism, "isolationist" element to US foreign policy. It's a strong plus for him, one of the few things that really makes him stand out if you can stomach the other stuff.

The way I see it, there are good reasons to support Ron Paul in the Republican primaries and wait for him to become popular enough to disrupt the nomination process. If he does well enough, the Republican establishment will push through a candidate of its choice but alienate Paul voters, making the chance of a third party or independent campaign by Paul more likely. Since for me, overall, Obama is still more desirable as a president than any of the current crop of Republicans, this ensures he gets re-elected, but probably without a majority. In this situation, the Republican establishment is weakened, the Democratic establishment is weakened, and the candidate who stood on his own values is rewarded even if he has no chance at the presidency. And in the meantime, on foreign policy at least, Paul helps keep people honest in the foreign policy debate. As Phil writes:

And Obama will be a better policymaker the longer Ron Paul is in the process. Paul will actually give Obama more political capital to take on the warmongers and neoconservatives by raising consciousness on these issues. I don’t want Ron Paul's foreign-policy ideas to be in the margins of political life, I want them in the mainstream. That is what he represents.

As an independent who leans progressive (but has a secret Tory heart) and is repulsed at the Democratic party's support for Israel and the warmongering of the last decade, Paul just makes sense — precisely because he has little chance of getting power but some of his ideas deserve better airing. Too bad he came third in Iowa, but I hope sticks around.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

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