x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

From peace to fiscal policy, Washington appears broken

A poll of Arab attitudes towards the US just a few days after Standard & Poor's credit rating showed low favourable ratings given to the US and Barack Obama, similar to the downgrade of the sovereign rating.

Several sad parallels can be found in the bumbling way Washington dealt with raising the debt ceiling and averting financial catastrophe, and the United States' overall handling of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

When Standard & Poor's downgraded the US bond rating, one of the main reasons was the way politics impeded decision-making. The inability to make needed compromises shook confidence. As a result of the brinkmanship on display in recent months, the ratings agency judged the system to be broken, arguing that the partisan stand-off was "not a serious way to run a country".

It was, by any measure, a sorry sight. On one side was President Barack Obama, willing to compromise to achieve a "grand bargain" that would have resulted in a 10-year, $4.3 trillion (Dh15.8 trillion) reduction in spending. Republicans rejected the proposal, refusing to negotiate a plan that might combine cuts in spending with any form of tax increase.

The result was a near-fatal game of chicken as the clock ticked down to the day when the US would have been, in theory, prohibited from borrowing to pay its bills.

In the end the White House blinked and a compromise, of sorts, made only limited cuts in spending, while passing tough decisions down the line to a bipartisan Congressional committee with the same ideological constraints.

Much the same scenario has played out in the US approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace, culminating in the spectacle of Mr Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu squaring off in Washington in May.

In a familiar pattern, Mr Obama, recognising that the clock was ticking on the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution, laid down a modest proposal that 1967 borders and "land swaps" should be the basis for talks.

Israel and its supporters in Washington not only balked, but mounted a direct challenge. Mr Netanyahu went to the White House and lectured the president. The Israeli leader then accepted an invitation from Republican leaders to address a joint session of Congress, where he again challenged Mr Obama and was greeted by repeated standing ovations. This dressing down of a US president - and Congress's explicit support of a foreign leader at Mr Obama's expense - shocked the rest of the world. It revealed the dysfunctional nature of partisan politics and the inability of the US to sustain even a modest challenge to Israel.

Zogby International and the Arab American Institute conducted a poll of Arab attitudes towards the US just a few days after this drama. The record low favourable ratings given to the US and Mr Obama are similar to Standard & Poor's downgrade of the sovereign rating. It was another indictment of US leadership abilities and broken Washington politics.

In both the debt-ceiling crisis and the blocked peace efforts, playing politics trumped rational problem-solving. That cavalier approach to matters of state placed artificial impediments in the way of real solutions, took the US and the world to the brink of crisis, shook the world's confidence in the US ability to act effectively and decisively, and resulted in a degradation of US ratings and standing.

What is unfortunate and irritating is the way Republicans have reacted to these self-inflicted wounds. When our poll results were first released, some conservatives were gleeful. From the beginning, they had wanted Mr Obama to fail in his efforts to repair the damage inflicted during the Bush administration. Blinded by their embrace of the neoconservative approach to the region, some conservatives wanted to dig themselves deeper with the same policies. They celebrated Arabs' antipathy towards Mr Obama as evidence his policies were failing.

Similarly, many Republicans greeted the Standard & Poor's downgrade not as an indictment of their intransigence, but as a club to beat the president. They ignored that 80 per cent of the US debt was the result of failed policies that they had embraced during the Bush years - tax cuts that drained the Treasury coffers, two costly wars and an unfunded prescription drug plan that was designed to benefit pharmaceutical companies more than pensioners. Here, too, the proposal of more tax cuts would have just dug a deeper hole.

If America is to re-establish confidence in its financial stability and constructive leadership this dysfunctional politicking must end. Nothing short of a dramatic change in direction is needed.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute