Lessons From the Arab World for the United States

Donald Trump at a recent CPAC conference. Photo by Michael Vadon (Flickr)

By Rouven Stubbe, a Menton third-year student based in the University of California, Berkeley.

Various recent news reports indicate that President Trump and the White House are considering a plan proposed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, former CIA officer John R. Maguire, and former Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, to build “a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies” by “countering ‘deep state’ enemies in the intelligence community seeking to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency”. Erik Prince is the founder of the infamous private military company Blackwater, now called Academi, and brother of Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Incidentally, Prince admitted on November 30 that he met with Putin ally and CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund Kirill Dmitriev during a secret meeting on January 11 in the Seychelles, brokered by the United Arab Emirates.

The private spy network that Prince, Maguire and North envision would report directly and only to the White House and Mike Pompeo, who is the Trump-appointed CIA director and alleged successor to Rex Tillerson at the State Department. Tillerson has been a moderate voice in the administration on issues such as Qatar, Iran and North Korea, and more than once has seemed to openly disagree with voices emanating from the White House. His departure, particularly if replaced by Mike Pompeo, would decidedly tilt the U.S. towards a less diplomatic, more aggressive and more interventionist foreign policy. It would also further politicize the State Department over what can only be described as an ongoing struggle to curb the influence of the United States’ political institutions by concentrating more and more power within the White House and the circle of loyalists around President Trump.

Interestingly, Trump’s disrespect for the ‘establishment’, his preference for governing through personal connections rather than impartial institutions, and his distrust of institutionalized intelligence services are commonplace methods of governance in other regions of the world, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Not to mention the division of a hyper-partisan people along intersecting ideological, ethnic, religious, geographic and cultural fault lines. Ghassan Salamé, renowned scholar and ex-politician, explains that the authoritarian revolutions that took place in the 1950s and 1960s in the Arab World were a result of the fatigue of the Arab people with the form of democracy that prevailed during mandatory times. Those democracies were seen as a façade for the reproduction of power of the ruling elites and established families. Arguably, and quite ironically, similar resentments towards the ‘establishment’ played a key role in the election of Donald Trump. And, similarly to the regimes in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, the Trump administration will ultimately fail to address the salient economic inequalities within the U.S and will instrumentalize foreign policy and domestic scapegoating to distract from its policy failures.

And, similarly to the regimes in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, the Trump administration will ultimately fail to address the salient economic inequalities within the U.S.

Israel, and more recently Iran, have often served as the external enemy for Arab autocracies to ‘rally around the flag’. For Donald Trump’s presidency, actors such as North Korea, Iran, the Islamic State and other ‘Islamic terrorists’ play a very similar role. However, these diversionary tactics were often not efficient enough to ensure the sufficient domestic support. Frustrated, Arab leaders employing these tactics would then often undermine official institutions and their system of checks and balances – to the extent that these institutions existed – replacing them with a clientelist and neo-patrimonial power network. The most prominent examples of this are the Egyptian army’s infamous economic empire, as well as the Algerian military-economic oligopoly, as well as the clientelist network developed by the Trabelsi clan under Ben Ali in Tunisia, the rentier states in the Gulf and in Iraq, or the more subtle silencing of the economic elite in Hafez and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The state of the U.S. economy, of course, is far from that of Egypt. However, one should not forget about the conflicts of interest of the Trump family with Jared Kushner and members of the administration like Betsy DeVos, who is linked to a private college that nearly received a special tax exemption from the Republican Tax Plan. All these conflicts of interest are certainly reason for concern – not to mention the issue of corporate money in American politics, and the ‘revolving door’ between private sector and government.

These entanglements between corporate interests and the Trump administration would gain a whole new dimension if the White House were to hire private security contractors, led by the Erik Prince the brother of serving Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to construct what would essentially be a competing private secret service and espionnage network to existing institutions like the CIA. It is no coincidence that this plan resembles the parallel structures of competing intelligence services in Arab autocracies like Egypt, Syria, or Saddam’s Iraq. They reflect the distrust of the autocrats in their country’s institutions, closest aides and subordinates. The danger of multiple unaccountable secret services that only answer to the President or a narrow circle of advisors should be obvious, because they undermine the rule of law and the function of a country’s democratic institutions, which might eventually lead to something similar to a dawla mukhabarat — the secret service state that terrorizes opposition members and deviants.

It is no coincidence that this plan resembles the parallel structures of competing intelligence services in Arab autocracies like Egypt, Syria, or Saddam’s Iraq.

Apart from clientelism and the possibility of a parallel private secret service, there is another uneasy parallel between the United States and various countries in the Arab World – that of a more-than-ever divided nation. This development became evident with the divisive presidential campaign, subsequent election of Donald Trump and the bitter opposition by people who voted for the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. However, it is a development that can be traced back decades in American history: “In 1960, only 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married somebody with the opposing party affiliation. In 2010, 49 percent of Republicans said they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat, and 33 percent of Democrats said they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Republican.” Without doubt, these numbers are even higher today. There are multiple reasons for this increasing hyper-partisan division of American politics and society, but it has a lot to do with the way politics is done in the United States.

First of all, it does not help that there are only two big political parties that dominate the political scene. This is due to the nature of the American electoral system, in which a single-member first-past-the post electoral system disadvantages alternative or centrist, third-party candidates, increasingly polarizing the two existing big parties. Furthermore, hyper-partisanship has to do with economic anxieties and a different framing of existing problems and their solutions. While the Democratic Party frames the issue in terms of social justice and economic equality, the Republican Party, especially in its Trumpian form, frames the problem as an essentially racial one.

For many Trump voters, the essential problem that America faces is the decline of ‘White America’, which in turn purportedly is the root of economic problems and grievances.

While there are of course issues with the substance behind each party’s claims, the greater problem is how politicians and hyper-partisan media manipulate and re-confirm these beliefs. As mutual distrust and hatred deepen the division of society, a country like that of contemporary United States becomes more and more impossible to govern democratically. Especially in a country where bipartisan deals and negotiations play a major role in mitigating discords between the House, the Senate and the President, identity politics and hyper-partisanship can bring politics to a complete gridlock. If the 2018 mid-term elections change the majority in the House of Representatives and/or the Senate, this can become a real problem.

More generally, hyper-partisanship also ultimately leads to the dismissal of the other party’s legitimacy. Disagreements over even the most basic of principles and issues make politics more and more a vehicle to serve a single party or a candidate’s constituency rather than the interests of an entire nation. When the other side is seen as illegitimate, disrespect for a country’s institutions, procedures and basic values become more and more justifiable in the eyes of its different representatives. As much as Iraqi Sunnis saw the Iraqi state as their natural dominion that was to be defended against Shias — not seen as real Iraqis but rather as Iranian,Persian or ‘Safavid’ puppets — some white Americans who voted for Donald Trump see the American state as theirs and only theirs, a state must necessarily be defended against immigrants. Be they Mexican, Muslim or of another nature, their participation in elections is seen as illegal and threatening.

These feelings and expressions of hatred are a fabricated need for ‘self-defense’ which must come from somewhere. They are to a great extent the result of decades-long narratives fueled and exploited by racist and xenophobic politicians and opinion shapers. This racial component is but one dimension of the hyper-partisan division of America. Other factors can include cultural questions about the nature of the family, geographic divides along urban/rural cleavages, and religious differences between conservative Christians on one side and atheists, more moderate Christians and other religious identities on the other side. Their cumulative effects are devastating: even though the United States has not recently experienced massacres like those in Iraq, rallies and incidents like the one in Charlottesville are, frankly frightening.

There are, of course, important differences between Iraq, other Arab countries, and the United States: the U.S. has a longer and more matured experience with democratic institutions, and is less subject to unhealthy foreign influence — although the alleged role of Russia in the last election indicates that even the United States is not immune against foreign meddling. Furthermore, the United States has overcome fundamental divisions of its society in the past. One can only hope that this time, it does not take a Civil War to overcome this divide.

Today, it seems as though the United States needs another Roosevelt, if it does not want to become a failed state or a dawla mukhabarat

Socioeconomic grievances, record-high inequalities, and a distrust in the political establishment have also been seen before in the United States. Eventually, they were overcome thanks to an admirable courage to reform the political and economic system. Theodore Roosevelt did so in the early 20th century when he introduced universal suffrage, anti-trust laws, and fought the power of corrupt political machines in response to the record high inequalities and political grievances of the late 19th and early 20th century. After the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did the same with the New Deal Coalition which enacted sweeping banking and financial regulation, with reforms to labor rights and regulations, not to mention the establishment of Social Security and the modern welfare state. Both, coincidentally, also shook up the prevailing political fault lines and alliances that had dominated American politics. Today, it seems as though the United States needs another Roosevelt, if it does not want to become a failed state or a dawla mukhabarat. It is up to Americans to come together, overcome hyper-partisan hatred and distrust, and enact constructive reforms. If they fail to do so, the seeders of division and hatred will eventually win and consolidate more power.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the editorial staff and the newspaper Le Zadig.

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