Shuttling between my home in North Africa, business partners south of the Sahara, and friends in the United States, I’m struck by the disparity in perception of the American president.
In Washington, from both sides of the political aisle, one hears the gravest concerns about the President of the United States Donald J. Trump’s temperament and governance, and alarm about the unprecedented acrimony between him and the American media.
In African countries aspiring to democratic reform, some of the same causes for alarm in Washington come across as evidence of the resilience of the American system. In the confrontation between the president and the media we see not a breakdown of democracy but proof that democracy works.
President Trump, elected by voters long marginalized from the American public discussion, has been channeling their frustration, however unevenly. While in doing so, on the one hand, he has caused a frenzy among elites, he has also caused the disenfranchised to feel vested in the democratic process. Meanwhile, the fourth estate is flexing its formidable muscle and forcing the President to choose between addressing his own weaknesses or losing credibility.
These positive impressions come in the context of a recent history of dashed hopes. Africans north and south were initially heartened eight years ago upon the election of the first U.S. President with roots in our continent.
Early on, in addressing the developing world, he seemed to understand the need to promote human rights, equality, and democratic reform without pushing benign autocracies to the point of collapse.
We saw it in the balance he struck between statements about universal freedoms on the one hand and a conciliatory speech to authoritarian elites in Cairo — American allies of long standing — on the other. But over time it emerged that his policies differed from the pragmatic idealism of his rhetoric. Beginning in 2011, amid the wave of revolution in North Africa and beyond, he did little to halt the descend into civil war in chaos.
He sought accommodation with regressive movements — whether Iran-backed Shiite or Sunni Islamist — that hold the values he spoke for in contempt. Meanwhile, he failed to win the confidence of either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and did not act on the potential to enlist other Arab partners in brokering peace.
Trump, thus far, comes across to us as Obama’s polar opposite, in that his rhetoric has been alarming at times but his policies show promise. On the one hand, he has made statements about Islam that raise questions about bias, and evinced a disinterest in the historic American agenda of supporting the spread of liberal egalitarian principles around the world.
But in terms of engagement, he has accrued political capital with power brokers in our region who want not only to defeat extremist groups but also promote positive domestic reforms and regional peace. An optimistic reading of the recent G-20 summit would suggest that in appointing his daughter and confidant Ivanka to attend the session on “Africa, Migration, and Health,” he established a channel for follow up with political leaders and civic actors across the continent.
He has meanwhile appointed two trusted envoys for Israeli-Arab peacemaking — son-in-law Jared Kushner and longtime attorney Jason Greenblatt — and signaled a clear appreciation of the potential for a regional strategy to resolve the conflict.
As to his attempts to cooperate with Russia in countering jihadism, they are disconcerting for their potential to indirectly strengthen Putin’s ally, Iran. But it is widely recognized in Africa and the Middle East that Putin has made himself indispensable in the region’s proxy wars, and alleviating humanitarian catastrophes may require his involvement.
The administration has sent many mixed signals to the developing world. The cautious optimism I see around me won’t last long if the president does not pursue a coherent policy that marries pragmatism and idealism in Africa and among our neighbors in the Arab East.
Across Africa, he should support and invest in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals of fighting poverty, hunger, and disease and promoting equality of genders and denominations. He should help the American private sector discover the opportunities for profitable investment awaiting them in Africa.
In the Middle East, he must balance his accommodation with Russia for the sake of quelling mass killing with fierce pushback on Iranian expansionism. And in reasserting American leadership in all these arenas, he should press Israelis, Palestinians, and all their neighbors to come together in reaching a comprehensive settlement.
We are hopeful, in any case, that if he fails to meet these responsibilities, a vigilant American media and political opposition will tell the American people as much, and build support for a better alternative.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan publisher. He is a board director of the Atlantic Council and an International counselor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.