The Middle East Watched America’s Election Through a Mirror
As Republicans and Democrats hashed out their differences, politicians from Iran to Israel made it all about themselves.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Donald Trump, is without a doubt, the first American presidential candidate to be quoted approvingly by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the right-wing Israeli press.
It was Trump’s accusation that Obama is the “founder of ISIS” that earned him praise from Nasrallah, who took it as confirmation of his longstanding claim that Washington had created the extremist group for its own nefarious ends. “This was spoken on behalf of the American Republican Party,” the leader of the Shiite paramilitary organization said. “He has data and documents.”
Trump’s rise has also been cheered in Israel, Hezbollah’s archenemy, where the Republican nominee has powerful friends. Israel Hayom, a free newspaper funded by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a prominent donor to both Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regularly sings the Republican nominee’s praises: In March, it ran a cover featuring Trump standing next to its senior correspondent, with the headline “Your friend is leading the race.” In recent days, the paper has seized upon any scrap of information suggesting that Trump will prevail against Clinton, touting his supposed advances into Democratic strongholds and alleged gains among minorities and women.
Donald Trump has also, surprisingly, made some friends among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews. Shaah Tovah, which caters to the community, ran an article explaining how Trump supports traditional Judaism, under a headline that quoted Trump telling a rabbi: “A Jew needs to honor the Sabbath.”
Trump, it is fair to say, is neither a supporter of Hezbollah nor a proponent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish values. But leaders and opinion-makers across the Middle East have regularly used America’s presidential candidates, and its presidential campaigns to justify their own worldviews.
Just take a look at Iran. Hard-line officials in Tehran have used the campaign season to advance their view of the U.S. political system as fundamentally evil and corrupt. A state-run television station ran the first season of House of Cards, as newspapers seized on the show’s Machiavellian president as an accurate portrayal of how American politicians wield power. “There is not much difference between Trump and Clinton. The two are as one soul in two bodies,” opined the hard-line Kayhan in an editorial. “America’s hostilities against Iran will continue and no matter who will be elected.”
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, meanwhile, has used the election as evidence of his belief that the United States is in political and spiritual decline. The debates between Clinton and Trump, he said, were “indicative of the abolition of human values in America,” while the entire campaign constitutes proof “of the consequences of lack of spirituality and faith among those in power.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has taken a similar line, arguing that U.S. politicians are in the thrall of special interests, which make their campaign statements meaningless. As journalists repeatedly pressed him to express a preference between Trump and Clinton, he maintained that he was not following the campaign closely, as candidates regularly shift their position once taking office. “We have never placed our bets on any American president,” he said in February. “We always bet on policies; and these policies are not controlled only by the president, but by the establishment in general, and by the lobbies operating in the United States.”
Assad has also harped on American presidents’ lack of experience — a point of contrast for a leader who has held power for 16 years, and whose family has ruled Syria for 46 years. “Who had this experience before? Obama? Or George Bush? Or [Bill] Clinton before? None of them had any experience,” he said, waving off a question about Trump’s lack of foreign-policy experience. “This is the problem with the United States.”
On the other side of Syria’s war, however, leaders of the political opposition are hoping that the U.S. election can shift the conflict in their favor. Syrian National Council leaders have endorsed Clinton, citing her support for a no-fly zone in Syria.
It’s not a specific policy change most Middle Eastern leaders are looking for, however, but validation of their own decisions. In Egypt, for instance, Trump praised President Abdelfattah al-Sisi as a “fantastic guy” for his strong-arm approach to Islamists. Sisi soon returned the favor, telling CNN there was “no doubt” that Trump would make a strong leader.
Some of this should sound familiar to observers in the United States. The Washington debate about the Middle East often revolves around American values and decisions: During the runup to the Iraq War, for example, hawks and doves grappled over whether there was a “freedom gene” that would lead Iraqis to democracy — a discussion far removed from the details of daily life that would shape Iraq. More recently, the debate over the causes of the 2012 Benghazi attack or the rise of the Islamic State has focused on what U.S. officials did or didn’t do — not the complex local dynamics that led to state collapse in Libya, Syria, or Iraq.
Donald Trump is not confirming Hezbollah’s worldview any more than he’s championing ultra-Orthodox Jewish values. Instead, the Middle East’s pundits and politicians are using the U.S. election as a stand-in for their own political battles. Turnabout, after all, is only fair play.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images