Last minute nerves

Obama may be looking like a shoe in but Democrats have had too many disappointments in recent years

A few hours out from Election Day, both candidates have made their closing arguments and all the cards appear to be on the table, so I don’t anticipate much more drama in the presidential race. The good news for Democrats is there is not a single poll that has McCain winning the election. Among Conservative opinion-leaders, the mood is subtly shifting from the desperate search for evidence that McCain's steadily closing the gap, to self-consolation that he's kept the race relatively close despite all his disadvantages.

I don't think any remaining uncertain factors will be enough to undo Obama's lead. That being said there is a feeling of anxiety among many Democratic activists right now that something could go terribly wrong on Tuesday. There's not much evidence to support such fears, and that even if McCain winds up doing exceptionally well among undecided voters, he's probably too far behind to close the deal.

I'd argue that aside from there well-earned Democratic pessimism based on past close elections, there might be two factors underpinning this anxiety. The first is obvious enough: race. With the McCain campaign heavily relying on submerged and not-so-submerged racial appeals, old fears about the willingness of white Americans to elect an African-American president have bubbled up.

The second factor is subtler: personal emotional investment in Obama. Democrats have long considered Obama a phenomenal, once-in-a-generation leader who can be "transformational;" others have reached this conclusion more recently. Still others simply think it's imperative, that the Republican lock on the White House is terminated this year, for reasons ranging from Supreme Court appointments to foreign policy.

I wanted to understand why there was anxiety amongst the Democrat activists and one personal experience summed it up best for me – a teacher who goes by the name Ed (who is campaigning in Pennsylvania) said to me that he has only had a strong emotional, as opposed to professional or ideological, investment in the outcome of two presidential elections: 1992 and 2004. And those two Election Nights represented the ultimate highs and lows.

“Back in1992, I remember the joy I was feeling sitting in Atlanta's premier political watering hole, Manuel's Tavern, surrounded by members of a class I was teaching, as Georgia was called for Bill Clinton just two minutes after the polls closed. In 2004, the bad news came to me from a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in Florida, and told me: "We're done in Florida, and we're done nationally," finally dashing the illusions born of faulty exit polls.”

Many other Democrats have had similar experiences, more negative than positive, usually and many more were wrenched by the endless and ultimately maddening drama of 2000 than with the near miss of 2004. But virtually all of them seem transfixed by this year's election, and what it might signify. That can produce anxiety, which will only be resolved when all the votes are in, and the Democrats have prevailed.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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