The final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney provided a stark lesson about the true importance of the Arab world and wider Middle East for the U.S. political establishment.
The two men staked out foreign policy positions that differ little in substance. On the central issue in the Arab world, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Romney and Obama were homed in on only one thing: demonstrating who was more concerned about the safety and security of the Jewish state.
Washington’s support for Tel Aviv is moral, financial, military and political, and the overarching truth is quite simple: Israel gets whatever it wants, because there is no significant source of counter-pressure.
And why not? On the other side is a deafening level of rhetoric and noise, but little else. Those who support the Palestinians’ quest for an independent and sovereign state do not constitute anything more than a cacophony of denunciation of bias by Washington toward Israel. The U.S. decides its foreign policies based on its interests, and sees little reason to make changes in this part of the world. People here might tune in to a presidential debate to gauge the policies of Obama versus Romney, but the real story is the network of institutions, interests and lobbies that maintain fixed policies.
The U.S. sees the Middle East as the home of several hundred million consumers, the location of some attractive natural resources, and a key part of the geopolitical equation.
If people hear sympathy from Washington with certain Arab causes, such as Palestine, it only amounts to an attempt to keep bridges intact, as the U.S. secures and fights for its interests in the region.
If rulers in the Arab world continue their policies of keeping education, freedom and democracy distant from their populations, these countries will never play a meaningful role on the world stage, or compete with Israel for the attention of Washington.
And if people in this region think that street protests and rhetorical displays will grab the attention of the west, they are sorely mistaken. American and Western foreign policies vis-à-vis the Middle East will never change drastically in response to outdated methods. Only a transformation in the structure of Arab states, and the way they treat their own people and the outside world, will cause Western countries to sit up and take notice.
The Arab Spring series of popular uprisings might not lead to a change in the geopolitical equation, but the process still has a long way to go.
In the meantime, a presidential debate in the U.S. is ample evidence that despite all of the sound and fury in this part of the world over the last two years, the world’s superpower has yet to view things differently, or have much to say to the millions of people who live here.