Do not expect substantive shifts in policy on Arab issues
If there is one thing we will remember about outgoing Secretary of State Michael Pompeo it is that he wore his heart on his sleeve. His “in-your-face” attitude and a tendency not to hold back fueled concerns among many Arab activist groups about his long-term goals.
When Pompeo spoke, there was no risk of misunderstanding how he felt about an issue. He never held back in expressing his strong feelings about the leadership of Iran, for example, nor did he mute his gushing support for Israel’s government.
His successor is expected to adopt a different style, one that might make it easier to advance US foreign policy goals. President-elect Joe Biden has said he will nominate Tony Blinken, a pro-Israel liberal, to serve as the new secretary of state. This is not surprising, considering that Blinken, who served as a National Security Council staffer under President Bill Clinton, was Biden’s spokesman on foreign policy during the final months of the election campaign.
Arabs wondering how Washington’s approach to the Middle East might change under Biden need not wonder too long if they recognize that the differences between Pompeo and Blinken come down not to matters of policy but to process.
Blinken will pursue almost all of the same goals as Pompeo but will do so in a less outlandish fashion that is more subtle, more nuanced and more considerate of opinions in the Arab world. But the end result will basically be the same, regardless of Biden’s six-page “Agenda for the Arab American Community,” which is on his official website.
One thing we know for sure, from Biden’s campaign speeches and by reading that agenda, is that Blinken will design for the new president a softer approach to Iran that is less combative. That shift will not be welcomed by a moderate Arab world that, rightly, views Iran as an extremist threat.
We also know that Blinken will be a strong champion of Israel. He might not have openly advocated for many of the policies Trump rammed through during the final two years of his administration, but Blinken supports many of them. In fact, some might argue that his appointment heralds a pro-Israel policy that is much stronger than Trump’s but more subtle in its approach.
Blinken believes the US Embassy belongs in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv, and he has no plans to change that. This recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a given under prior administrations. The only reason the embassy was not moved there until Trump came along was fear that it might upset the apple cart and cause serious problems in the Middle East. Trump proved that assumption to be wrong in 2018 when he ordered the relocation of the embassy. But he did not do it to appease the Israelis or Jewish voters in the US — he did it to reinforce his popularity among Evangelical Christians, a significant voter base.
Arabs might point to Biden’s agenda for Arab Americans in much the same way they pointed to the “Cairo speech” given by former President Barack Obama in 2009. But the truth is that when you carefully read them both, they hold out the hope of a more pleasant environment while offering little in the way of real substance to achieve it.
In other words, telling Arabs that they cared about them was more than enough to gain their support, without having to actually do anything. For all of the bluster of Obama’s Cairo speech, it was heavy in pleasing rhetoric but light in terms of significant policy change.
Both Biden and Obama have spoken in strong terms about respecting the civil rights of Muslims. Obama proposed a new beginning in the relationship between the US and Muslims around the world, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. Specifically, he vowed that his administration would seek a more comprehensive engagement with Muslim-majority countries.
As a result, Arabs — who were and are often the target of discriminatory policies — were willing to believe that things could change not only in terms of human rights, but in terms of policy decisions affecting the Middle East.
As we know, that did not really happen during the Obama administration. The hopes and dreams of Arabs that were fueled by his speech did not translate into changes that improved the everyday lives of the people of the Middle East or addressed ways of ending the conflicts there.
Arabs are making the same mistake by allowing an infatuation with Biden’s agenda to fuel a belief that somehow he will advance the cause of establishing a Palestinian state. If anything, his promises only set Arabs up for another major disappointment. He cannot meet the expectations of Arabs or appease them because his own party, the Democrats, have defined the American policies that support Israel.
Condemning Israel’s settlements, which Obama often did, is not the same as punishing a regime for expanding illegal settlements built on land stolen from Christian and Muslim Palestinians.
Obama did not take any real action to punish Israel for anything, except perhaps on one occasion when he refused to veto a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. It is easy to forget that in December 2016, he abstained from blocking a resolution that condemned Israel for its illegal settlement activity. He faced criticism for failing to prevent approval of the resolution, but in truth it did not matter because it achieved nothing other than adding more empty words to a book that is filled with worthless rhetoric condemning Israel’s actions. Months before allowing the resolution to pass, Obama approved the largest military aid package in Israel’s history, worth $38 billion.
Telling Arabs that they cared about them was more than enough to gain their support, without having to actually do anything.
Israelis might not have liked the fact that Obama failed to act in the UN in defense of their illegal settlement policies, but it is not the same as implementing policies with consequences for settlement expansion. No consequences were imposed, so the resolution was nothing more than an empty gesture.
Our weakness as Arabs is that we are often too emotional. We are easily swayed by beautiful words — which is one reason why we love poetry, I suppose.
Allowing feelings of euphoria to create a false sense of hope and justice when we face substantive challenges, such as the Palestinian cause, is a flaw we should prepare to experience once again. Other than some sympathetic words, do not expect much in the way of substantive policy changes from the new administration in Washington when it comes to issues such as Palestine or punishing Israel for military abuses during its occupation of the West Bank.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania