Six years ago, President Barack Obama spoke at the White House about the Middle East. Encouraged by the Arab Spring events, Obama declared that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”
Indeed, in Egypt things seemed to be going in that direction, when in June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Moslem Brotherhood, won the elections and became President.
A year later, however, in a military coup, he was deposed and replaced by Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. While Pres. Obama called upon the usurping el-Sisi “to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible,” actually he did little to reverse this anti-democratic move.
For people in the Middle East who had taken to the streets in the Arab Spring, the message was clear: Hypocritical America will talk about democracy in the Middle East, but in reality will prefer doing business with its autocratic rulers.
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Enter President Trump, and suddenly there is no hypocrisy anymore. Ignoring the illegitimacy of el-Sisi and the human rights abuses of his regime, Trump hosted him at the White House last April and told him that "You have a great friend and ally in the United States - and in me."
Indeed, President Trump broke away not only from the Obama tradition but also from the “Freedom Agenda” of President George W. Bush, who, following the 9/11 attack, declared that while fighting terrorism ruthlessly, “America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands for human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the power of the state; respect for women; free speech, equal justice; and religious tolerance” (State of the Union Address, January 30, 2002).
President Trump will have none of that. As a shrewd businessman and self-acclaimed deal-maker, he wouldn’t waste his time and energy on reforming the region. For him, the Middle East is simply the battleground between Sunnis and Shiites and the hotbed of terrorism, where Shiite Iran is the source of all evil. Therefore, any Sunni who is fighting Iran is Kosher. This is why he started his Middle East trip in Riyadh, to reaffirm Saudi Arabia as the pace-setter for any future American policy moves in the region.
Trump couldn’t care less about the fact that 15 out of the 19 9/11 terrorists were Saudis, or that the Saudis have been harboring and funding the Wahhabi and Salafist jihadists, including al-Qaida, who have been harming American interests in the Middle East. Or, for that matter, that the biggest threat to the region – and as we have just witnessed in Manchester, to the whole free world – is ISIS, which is Sunni, and it is the pro-Iranian Shiite militias which shoulder the main burden of battle against that Sunni monster.
Iran is indeed the main de-stabilizer of the region, but the overall picture is a bit more complex than what Trump makes of the Middle East.
President Trump is also indifferent to the oppressive nature of the Saudi regime. Human Rights Watch reported that throughout 2016 the Saudis killed and injured thousands of civilian Yemens in unlawful airstrikes, continued with arbitrary arrests of peaceful civilians and the discrimination of women who, among other restrictions, can’t have a driver’s license. And in the 2017 Press Freedom Index, presented earlier last month at the Jerusalem Press Club by Reporters Without Borders, Saudi Arabia ranked 168 out of 180 countries.
All that didn’t prevent President Trump – on the same day when millions of Iranians freely elected their president – to perform a sword dance with his despotic Saudi hosts, and later, during his visit to Israel as well, to repeatedly hail King Salman as “wise” (Is it possible that he confused him with Solomon, the Wise King? Salman, Solomon, what’s in a name? No, away with you evil thoughts).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must have been happy with this show of Saudi-American love. For him, any Saudi-led Sunni alliance backed by the US could not only check Iran’s aggression, but also improve his position vis-à-vis the Palestinians, who would be coerced by the Saudis, Egyptians and the Jordanians to accept a deal with Israel.
Netanyahu the realist rightfully ignores the nature of the Saudi regime as well. Last time we Israelis meddled with our neighbors’ political system, in 1982, it ended in fiasco, when we tried to make the Maronite Christians the kings of predominantly Shiite and Sunni Lebanon.
Whatever this presidential visit might produce in the future, it has already helped highlight one important fact: In this turbulent, treacherous region, it is only Israel with which all Americans can truly feel comfortable, not only because of shared interests, but because of shared democratic values.
Even if there are strong differences regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when Israelis, through their democratic process, decide to stop ruling millions of Palestinians, American-Israeli relations will become even stronger.