American presidents and the Arab region: relation status, it’s complicated

American presidents and the Arab region: relation status, it’s complicated

With the US elections over and Donald Trump declared winner, the new president will determine much of the political developments around the world in the coming 4 to 8 years, and especially in the Arab region.

Going back in history, the relation between Arabs and the US has been long and complex. It got more intense after the World War II and the decline of British and French influence, which was slowly replaced by the American one. The US role in the region increased further after the Tripartite aggression in 1956, and the rise of movements of independence in the Arab region, as well as the intensification of the the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Each side in the Cold War was trying to attract countries into their orbit. When the oil boom came it drew a whole new dimension to that relationship. All of this does not undermine the central role of Israel, as a crucial element in the Arab-American relation.

Since the rise of the US as a major world power, there has been 11 presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. These have had mixed relations with the Arabs depending on political circumstances and world developments. What are the most important moments in this history in relation to the Arab world?

Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)

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His presidency is considered very important both internally and on the level of Arab relations. He took office a year after the 1952 July revolution in Egypt, and was there as a wave of revolts and independence movements swept the region.

In the beginning he tried to get closer to Gamal Abdel Nasser seeing that he was widely popular, but according to the James Traub in the Wall Street Journal, Eisenhower found that Nasser was leaning more to the east, especially after the US gave up on its funding for the High Dam leading to the events that led to the nationalization of the Suez canal, and the Tripartite aggression, though it was American interference that ended the war.

In his memoirs, Eisenhower writes that “the main problem is the growth of Nasser’s ambitions and his feeling of power that grew once he got closer to the Soviets. He believed that he could become a real leader of the Arab world. To prevent any such move, we wanted to see if King Saud could be made as a counterbalance. Saudi Arabia includes the holy lands and Saudis are the most religious among the Arabs. So we could make the King a spiritual leader, and by doing so he get the legitimacy to lead.”

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According to a classified document that fell into the hands of journalist Robert Dreyfuss, author of the Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, the US adopted a policy of supporting Islamists in the region in various ways.

John Kennedy (1961-1963)

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Though his time in office was short before he was assassinated, it was nonetheless eventful, especially on the level of US-Arab relations.

Perhaps the most important moment was his public support for the Palestinian refugee cause, which some believe was one of the reasons for his assassination, as well as his positions about Cuba and other issues that pleased neither Israel nor the American secret services.

Kennedy’s support for the Palestinian cause was clear in the letters he exchanged with Nasser. These were uncovered in a French book published in 1968 titled Gamal Abdel Nasser … the essential texts. The book mentions the exchanges that supported the role of Egypt in the region and his understanding of the Palestinian rights, and promises to work on getting the best possible solution.

The Egyptian response to the ongoing exchange of letters, was revealed by writer Mohamed Hassanein Haykal, in an article in Al Ahram. Nasser appreciated Kennedy’s position and insisted on the necessity of having a strong position in the Security Council to guarantee the rights of Palestinians and stop Israeli expansions.

All the stories and documents show that the Arab – Israeli conflict was heading in a very different direction during Kennedy’s presidency but destiny or conspiracy did not give him a chance.

Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)

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After Kennedy, Johnson came to the white house, to put an end to all the hope of resolving any of the region’s problems that grew under Kennedy. He started his term in office by reassuring Israel of the commitment to support and protect it, and before his term ended, Israel had occupied Sinai, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.

There is not much to say about Johnson except his absolute support for Israel, that allowed it to occupy more lands.

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Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

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Nixon did not complete his second term in office after the Watergate scandal. It is claimed that Arabs had high hopes when he got elected, especially after his visits to several Arab states during his campaign, and his famous speech in front of the High Dam in Aswan when he said: “If there is one thing I regret is that the US did not take part in this great structure. I wished as I stood in front of the High Dam that the US and not the USSR would have been the one that helped”.

Despite the absence of official relations between Egypt and the US during that period, Nasser was quick to congratulate Nixon on his victory, in order to break the ice. However, Nixon’s promised never materialized and the American support for Israel continued. During the 1973 October war, Israel got away only because of the airlift that was established between Washington and Sinai to support the Israeli troops.

Gerald Ford (1974-1977)

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Ford finished Nixon’s term, and because of the short period in office, and the controversy that hit the American administration, he was the least effective president for the Arab world. He was mostly working on limiting the damage done by the Vietnam war, and the Watergate scandal in the White house.

Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state, had the major role in the Middle East, as he was the one who brokered the Sinai agreement in 1975, with Egypt getting the most gains, and Israel the least losses, keeping its presence in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

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Carter had a lot of influence on the international level but internal problems made him fail to keep his office which he lost after 4 years.

Carter can be described as the engineer of the Camp David agreement which brought together Anwar Al Sadat and Menachem Begin in the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty since the establishment of the Zionist state in 1948. The agreement still has its repercussions today, and was the reason for Egypt’s break with many Arab states, though following the agreement Egypt took back control of all its territories.

Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

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His term in office was a period of calm when it came to Arab American relations. He was focused on finishing the ongoing battle with the USSR. However, there are some points to mention, such as the Iran gate scandal, which exposed the Reagan administration’s role in supplying weapons to Iran despite the embargo during the war with Iraq, which was also supported by the US, and the reason was to weaken the two states.

He also tried to move the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations along. The president at the time, Hosni Mubarak, visited the US on several occasions, and that coincided with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon which Reagan in his memoirs considered a reckless act.

Reagan also recounts in his memoirs that Egyptians and later Jordanians tried to convince him to recognize Yasser Arafat as the representative of Palestine in the UN, but he could not do it.

Georges Bush Sr. (1989-1993)

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This is one of the most important periods in Arab – American relations. There were two important events in the region, the Gulf War in 1991 when the US led the armies of 27 countries to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, and the second is the Madrid conference to end the conflicts in the Middle East in 1991. This conference was attended by all the sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and was the first historical meeting that gathered them all on one table.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

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He was the president that kept the most popularity after he left the White House, and his term in office is the one that had the most events related to the Palestinian cause. There was a series of negotiations and accords between the two sides, and during that period the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo accords which gave the PLO authority over the West Bank and Gaza and led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. After that there was the Wye River and Sharm Al Sheikh accords. Days before his term ended he presented suggestions to settle the Palestinian cause on the basis of Palestinians getting control of Jerusalem in exchange for giving up the right of return.

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George Bush Jr. (2001-2009)

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His term is known as the most difficult one for Arab-American relations. It started with the 11th of September attacks and he spent the rest of his term in a long “war on terror” which damaged the image of Muslims.

During that period he invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein, and this was accompanied by many events that tarnished the image of the US and will remain a dark stain in its history, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal and Guantanamo bay.

During his term in office the scenario for the fragmentation of the Arab region was drawn under the title of “the new Middle East”, a scenario that seems to be in the process of becoming a reality.

Barack Obama (2009-2017)

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He started his term by courting the Arabs and Muslims when he made his famous speech addressed to the Islamic world from under the dome of Cairo University, and made promises that never came true.

Obama was clear from the beginning in adopting a different policy from that of Bush, and not to engage his army in costly wars, but rather limit the intervention to logistics and training of fighters. This means in other terms, to let Arabs kill each other with American blessing.

His term in office included crucial events in the region, starting with the revolutions that erupted in Tunis in 2011, before spreading to other countries. The American position was very confused at the time, starting by supporting the regimes, then a shy support of popular will, to then show support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and finally withdrawing in appearance and choosing to focus on tackling specific issues.

Many inside the US blamed the Obama administration for the appearance and spread of terrorist movements in the region, because of the vacuum created by the non calculated withdrawal from Iraq and the US funding for opposition groups, as well as other developments that took place in Syria and Iraq in this period.

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