“Election day is payday”, goes the old adage. While this phrase is related more to a future tax policy a re-elected or newly elected government plans to implement, it does have implications on a country’s foreign policy, too.
Elections in the US in November last year produced the surprise of the decade, at least from the point of view of Western mainstream media. The Trump administration’s foreign politics had far implications for the Middle East so far – whether through the travel ban imposed for people without a “bona fide relationship” in the USA from the six mostly Muslim countries Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Iran, or the ban on the carriage of large portable electronics devices (PEDs), known as the “laptop ban”, for direct flights to “God’s own country” from ten international airports in eight Middle Eastern states. The laptop ban, implemented on March 25, was lifted at the beginning of July for the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and Jordan. A laptop ban for flights to the UK from six countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia – remains in place (at the time of going to print).
Snap elections in the United Kingdom on June 8 and the Presidential elections in France in April-May confirmed the incumbent government and created a new leadership, respectively.
Macron’s predecessor as President, François Hollande did not run for a second term due to record-low approval rates. Voters didn’t see him as the right man in the Élysée Palace to fight terrorism, which has hit France hard in recent years.
The UK government, however, is weakened as Prime Minister Theresa May is weaker than before the elections, due to gains by the oppositional Labour Party and an uncertain coalition partner, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) from Northern Ireland.
Both countries are not only important trade partners for most countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, but they do also enjoy the reputation of influencers, mediators and peace brokers in the region.
While British PM May remains busy with the Brexit negotiations in Brussels, her minister of foreign affairs Boris Johnson offered on July 8 to mediate between the Saudi-led Arab quartet and Qatar in the ongoing Gulf crisis.
For Sigmar Gabriel, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany, his shuttle diplomacy in the GCC during the first week of July has already paid off. Surveys in Germany showed that the Social Democrat gained popularity and became the second most popular politician in his country behind Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel, in office since 2005, is running for parliamentary elections on September 24 and aims to be elected for the fourth time as chancellor of Europe’s biggest economy. Current projections indicate that her Christian Democrats will win majority again and the FDP, the German LibDems, will return to the parliament (under German law, a political party can only claim seats in the Bundestag if it wins at least five percent of all votes). The FDP promises to cut taxes and privatize state-owned companies.
“Read my lips: no new taxes”, former US Vice President George HW Bush promised his voters before he was elected President. Once in the White House, he had to increase taxes to fight the record-high budget deficit his predecessor Ronald Reagan piled up.
But history will remember Bush senior (who observed his 93rd birthday on June 12 this year) as the “lost desert fox” who orchestrated a multi-national military coalition forcing out Iraqi occupying troops from Kuwait in February 1991, but who, despite this military victory, was not able to win a second term as he lost presidential elections in 1992 against Democratic rival William “Bill” Jefferson Clinton in 1992.
Incumbent President Donald J Trump promised “to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism” and he pledged at the Riyadh anti-terror summit in May that “Iran will never have a nuclear bomb”.
Also, his Secretary of State Rex Wayne Tillerson said that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “will leave power eventually.” However, “How Assad leaves is yet to be determined,” added Tillerson, formerly the CEO of oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil.
The price of the “black gold” toppled Western leaders and brought presidential hopefuls to power.
In the early 1980s, when the Iran hostage crisis escalated and the Iran-Iraq war caused an increase in the price of oil and inflation, the majority of US voters lost confidence in then-President Jimmy Carter and opted for Republican Ronald Reagan, who remained in power until 1989.
The Iran-Iraq war is now history and Syria became the battlefield. In contrast to Tillerson’s stance on the Assad regime, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron said that the removal of Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad was no longer a priority – a clear 180-degree turn.
Lack of unity
But the Western bloc rarely created unity in relation to foreign politics in the Middle East. This is not the first time that the Fifth Republic and the United States differ in their objectives.
Throughout modern history, presidential or parliamentary elections in the West were often interlinked with geopolitics in the Arab world.
In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent US President Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory after the Democrat failed to bring home US embassy hostages held in Tehran before Americans went to the polls.
A US rescue mission ended in a total failure after scores of military choppers crashed in the Iranian desert. Reagan had ease of blaming Carter of weak leadership in the wake of the Ayatollahs toppling the Shah of Persia (who called himself “Shah-en-Shah”, a Farsi title meaning “King of Kings”), although the latter helped to design the peace accord of Camp David between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the first of its kind in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Because the Iran-Iraq war triggered a surge in the price of oil and global inflation in 1982, Germany’s Christian Democrat and then opposition leader Helmut Kohl convinced the German Liberal Democrats to switch sides and leave a coalition with the ruling Social Democrats, who did not find the right means to prevent the West German economy from falling deeper into a recession. Kohl consequently toppled his opponent and namesake Helmut Schmidt in a parliamentary vote-of-no-confidence and became the sixth Chancellor of West Germany and, later in 1990, the first Chancellor of the re-united Germany.
Incumbent Chancellor Merkel (who is nicknamed “Mutti”, which means Mum in German), who grew up in East Germany territory and started her political career after the re-unification, is Kohl’s former protegé. The early 1990s where marked bya reckless civil war that radical Islamists launched against the people and government of Algeria. The decade-long fighting left 150,000 mostly civilians dead and France’s extreme right, led by the Front National (FN), rose from a niche party to a nationwide movement, as then FN-leader Jean-Marie Le Penwas successfully playing the fear card, pointing at a possible mass exodus of refugees from the gas-rich North African state to the Fifth Republic.
That Marine Le Pen – and not a Socialist – became second in the last Presidential elections which Macron won is regarded a late effect of the “période noir”, the black era Algeria went through until 2002. Barack Hussein Obama was re-elected in 2012, the 43rd US President’s more dovish stance towards Iran led to the Iran nuclear deal between the five world powers and Germany (P5+1) and Tehran.
Despite his victory in the second Gulf war, Bush Senior could not secure a second term in the White House. The Republican was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton, who later brokered a piece deal between Israel and the Palestinians and between Jordan and Israel in 1994. While the latter is valid until today, the former exists on paper and the Palestinian people are still waiting for a two-state solution, which US President Donald Trump said he would be able to create.