19 May 2016 (Washington, DC): In this segment of Focus Washington, Chuck Conconi sat with Pierre Ghanem, an Arab journalist covering Washington and the United States, to discuss the Arab world’s reception of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Just like many here in the US, Donald Trump’s rise has surprised the Arab world, but officials of Arab countries are unlikely to be caught off guard. Ghanem elaborates, “Trump may be different but government officials are professionals, we can make it work.” However, the Arab street may harbor some resentment after Trump’s numerous offensive remarks about Muslims.
Clinton, on the other hand, doesn’t elicit as many negative preconceived notions. As Secretary of State, she has not been associated with the worst aspects of the Obama administration in the eyes of Arabs; She hasn’t been tainted by the perceived pivot to Iran, as Kerry has. She was also one of the first US officials to focus on Palestine and its citizens, saying that they deserved a state. According to Ghanem, whether it’s Hillary or Trump, the new president will be a welcome relief after Obama whose empty promises and poor leadership in Syria disappointed most of the Arab and Muslim world.
Chuck Conconi (CC): Welcome to Focus Washington, my guest today is Pierre Ghanem, who is an Arab Journalist who covers Washington and United States for the countries in the Middle East. I’m working on the assumption that there is an intense interest in the presidential primary campaign throughout the Arab world. Am I correct?
Pierre Ghanem (PG): You are correct. Bearing in mind that we have so many troubles in the Arab world; still primaries and elections are also a good show and this year Trump made it a great show. Sanders added to it a little bit also. Now in the Arab world we are looking to it as more a serious matter since we are coming closer to the nomination.
CC: What is the reaction in the Middle East to the rise of this candidate that surprised everyone [Donald Trump]?
PG: One of the things that people looked at to Trump with [sic], they had the impression that nothing was serious and it’s getting very serious and the gentleman is clinching the nomination of the Republican Party. Then there is the sense of surprise. Many people do look at him as a clown; [but] many people look at him as very serious and dangerous. Because of his statement on Muslims, he has been antagonizing a lot of people and adding a lot of resentment.
CC: Do you think he can work with him if he is elected president and there is a chance.
PG: There are two layers here. The first layer is the government of Muslim countries, professional people, diplomats, public officers in Arab and Muslim countries [who] also think it may be difficult but as professionals we can deal with any President of the United States. For the people it’s different, people do think that he presents to them a bad image of the United States. He is using hate against them, antagonizing them, they don’t have access to information and professional dealing to look at him as the President of the United States who is heading a big country.
CC: Of course, the official party and diplomats always have to work with whomever they get. Will there be much pressure from the people in the Middle East saying how do we deal with this man if he is president?
PG: There may be a pressure, I’m not saying at all that members of government of the Muslim and Arab government would feel comfortable with someone who is behaving like Donald Trump or giving statements he is giving.
What we are saying at this moment, is that the government in the Muslim and Arab world, we need to deal with the pressure that is coming from their people and pressure that is coming from Trump. I should also add at this moment we need to look at Trump not only as a possible President of the United States, but I’m very confident that we are look at that Trump could come after Obama. There is a lot of disappointment with Obama. People I called this morning said there couldn’t be anything worse than Obama, that anything else would be better than Obama, but it could also be worse than Obama. There is a lot of blame on Obama and when they look at the next president they are comparing him to Obama.
CC: Why are they so negative about Obama?
PG: Well there were a lot of hype about Obama, a lot of promises about Obama. Obama was liked for the first year, he was a star in the Muslim and Arab world but after a short while, this star was fading. People in the Arab world think that he pivoted towards Iran, that is the other civilization within the area, but it is in fact a rival in the area. He came up also with the pivot towards the Pacific. When problems came into Syria, he relinquished leadership of the United States to Putin and Russia. Russia is not liked in the Arab world and our friend is running away.
There is a lot of disappointment in Obama they look at the next president as someone who should and must be better than Obama.
CC: If the next president is Hillary Clinton and the Republicans are saying it’s just going to be more of Obama, will that hurt her in the Arab world?
PG: Clinton doesn’t really have an image in the Arab world that is entrenched or rooted. Some people would say she would be a stronger leader than President Obama and there are more promises in her than we could see from Trump. The image of Clinton is not really something that worries so much the Arab people.
CC: She has a record as the Secretary of State, there must be some connection with that.
PG: Probably the least of her record was when she was Secretary of State because she didn’t leave a lot of traces behind her in the Middle East. It was John Kerry who in fact negotiated in Iran; it is now John Kerry who is negotiating on Syria and other areas. Some people in the Arab world remember Clinton as someone who talked first about giving the Palestinians their rights and state also. They don’t have any bad feelings about her.
CC: As a negotiator, you mentioned that we are negotiated, does that mean that Trump, who said he can negotiate everything easily– is that easy to do?
PG: He is putting himself as someone who is difficult; and, definitely people on the other side can be very difficult. I trust that any president who walks in the Oval Office within 48 hours after briefings from intelligence they will see that the U.S. has a lot of interest around the world and any president would need to review policies in light of those interests and many promises or statements giving during the elections.
CC: There is speculation there is going to be a raucous Democratic nominating convention. Will that have a deleterious effect?
PG: For the Arab world at this time, what is happening on the Democratic side is still a show. It is not really something that is concerning them as much as the GOP nomination concerns them. We’ll see. But definitely the idea of having Senator Sanders is not really rooted in the mind of our views.
CC: Pierre it’s going to be an interesting year and I hope we can talk again before the elections, thank you for being here.
PG: Thank you
CC: I am Chuck Conconi and this has been Focus Washington.