America's oddball politics reverberate across the region
My extended holiday in California, now nearing an end, has been a much-needed respite from a tumultuous 2011 in the Arab world. Yet a conservative revolution in America, even as seen from this most liberal of US states, seems to offer the mirror image of what has been happening in the Middle East.
I began my trip with a few days in Washington, as President Barack Obama engaged in a showdown with a Republican-held House of Representatives, a battle that brought the United States close to defaulting on its debt. This was led by politicians seen by many, even in their own party, as extremist populists (although they would call themselves "principled").
They humiliated their party's more moderate leadership, most notably Speaker of the House John Boehner, for trying to compromise with a president for whom they apparently have an unbridled hatred. Many in their midst consider him not really American and as secretly Muslim, as well as a closet socialist.
Later, in mid-August, I saw the Republican party's slate of presidential hopefuls gather in Iowa, at a state fair where they enjoy delicacies such as deep-fried butter. The run-up to America's party primary elections usually involves a lot of pandering to candidates' bases, and a few colourful characters. But in this case, a good half of the candidates appeared to qualify as loons. And those elitist types who do not seemed to be taking their cues from the others.
All are conservatives in the pro-business and "family values" sense that the Republican Party has offered for several decades now. But they are all also akin to religious fundamentalists. I wondered for a moment if I was not catching a glimpse of the future of democracy in the Middle East: populist, religiously loaded and all about one-upmanship.
But then I realised that even in the fledging post-revolution Arab countries few politicians, no matter how radical or conservative, seem to be as willing as these Republicans to sacrifice national harmony and stability for the sake of partisan scoring. And that the US does not have the excuse of being a recovering dictatorship, since - despite its many flaws - it is supposed to be the most advanced democracy in the world. Whether the Tea Party represents a brief surge of extremism or a rising long-term trend, it appears to be in part an epiphenomenon of relative American decline clashing with still a undaunted idea of American exceptionalism.
Mr Obama - a champion of humble multilateralism, even if he says "we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events" - was humiliated by the Tea Party movement's unwillingness to compromise over the debt ceiling. His poll numbers are now as low as ever they have been, and he has set himself up to face more partisan brinkmanship as his re-election campaign begins in earnest. To judge from liberal American commentary, even his most ardent supporters are disappointed that he has proved to be such a feckless political pugilist. Incumbent presidents tend to be re-elected, but the field is now wide open for an insurgent Republican to unseat Mr Obama.
Yet the real question may not be "what if Obama is not re-elected?" but rather "what if a Tea Party Republican - or at least a moderate held captive by the Tea Party - makes it to the White House in 2012?" What would that mean for the Middle East, where American foreign policy is a domestic issue?
At its origin, the Tea Party movement was libertarian. Some of its idols, such as the Texas Congressman Ron Paul, have ideas about foreign policy that are frequently described as "isolationist": against multilateralism, but also against unilateralism, and generally proposing a withdrawal from the role of world policeman that the US has played since the Second World War. "Our foreign policy is based on an illusion: that we are actually paying for it," Mr Paul has written.
An America led by someone like that could decide that it no longer needs to secure the safe transport of petroleum from the Gulf, that bases in Bahrain or Qatar are not needed, that there should be no special relationship with Israel (subsidising its belligerence) or with the heads of oil-rich nations. Such a change would undoubtedly be a major shift for the Middle East, whose political order has been partly underwritten by Washington for decades. But it could be plausibly argued that it would be a change for the better.
The issue of foreign debt looms large over the Republicans. Hopeful Tim Pawlenty told a cheering Iowa crowd: "Well, Mr President, let me tell you something: you cannot win the future by selling America off to foreign creditors."
Tea Party themes may dominate at the moment, but for the most part it is not libertarians like Mr Paul who are benefiting. Rather, it is repackaged opportunists with greater backing from the party machine, such as Mr Pawlenty, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. But they must also take into account Christian fundamentalists such as Iowa favourite Michelle Bachmann, as well as the ideas spread by egotists like Donald Trump and an influential roster of unhinged television and radio show hosts.
This is why the recent sordid turns in US politics are worth following for Middle Easterners. The sentiment that the Tea Party represents is likely to be, for a few years at least, a rising feature of the US policy debate, not just in economic affairs but also abroad. The faction of the Tea Party now on the ascendant is not the isolationist one: it is one so blindly unilateralist that it could make even George W Bush's policies seem soft.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He blogs at www.arabist.net
Published: August 15, 2011 04:00 AM