x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

US presidential hopefuls ignore regional change

Domestic issues and divisive rhetoric on world affairs will shape the US presidential election, which starts in earnest today. But those of us without a vote deserve better.

At fire houses and schools in the American state of Iowa today, the race for the White House begins in earnest. Republican candidates, under pressure to consolidate support or withdraw, will now turn their attention to domestic issues that matter most to potential US voters.

This shift is inevitable, but in a year with so much at stake around the world, it is also potentially dangerous.

Health care and tax reforms resonate with the American electorate; Egypt's political crisis, or what to do about Yemen, doesn't put bread on the table or money in the bank. But as the election year begins in America, it is vital that presidential candidates consider, and discuss, the world in which the US plays such an important role.

What we've heard so far from all sides - Republican candidates to the Democratic incumbent, President Barack Obama - doesn't instil much confidence. Rather than an honest assessment of how US policy can and should adapt, we've been treated to a steady dose of partisan rhetoric and political posturing.

The year that just ended rewrote America's relationship with the Middle East and North Africa. Old benefactors of Washington's largess, once bedrocks of US foreign policy - especially in regard to Israel - have been tossed aside in favour of Islamist parties and political newcomers. Meanwhile Iran still defies, Iraq simmers, Libya struggles and Syria inches towards sectarian war.

So far the Republicans contenders vying for their party's nomination have expressed views that could inflame rather than help solve this region's challenges, from Newt Gingrich's suggestion that Palestinians are an "invented" people to Michele Bachmann's lament for Hosni Mubarak.

Mr Obama has offered little more. Remarkably inconsistent in its support for Arab democratic reform, his administration has alienated many in the Arab world with unwavering support for Israel. Voters in the US, and people in the Middle East, deserve better.

Political pandering is a part of politics. Reading too much into one candidate's statement, or interpreting another's silence, is part of the tough task that comes with being a voter. But the tougher task will be making sure America's relationship with the Arab world is not hijacked by the campaign season that starts today. The world is in need of strong US engagement on issues from Iran to Syria, Libya to Iraq.

No matter who wins in November, they do themselves no favours by glossing over what awaits.