JEDDAH: Leading experts in Arab affairs, columnists and journalists feel that the race for the American presidential elections remains wide open and evenly poised.
They described the outcome of the three presidential debates as inconclusive and unclear.
For some, Hillary Clinton came out on top; for others Donald Trump, despite his brashness, managed to retain his appeal to his core base of voters.
For Faisal Al-Yafai, chief columnist at the Abu Dhabi-based The National newspaper, watching the three debates gave one a sense of what he called the vibrancy and pageantry of American democracy.
“That has its pros and cons. The vibrancy is that you see so many people, tens of millions of people, watching three debates of 90-minute each. Which is fantastic. The downside is that it is really about the public performance of politics rather than real politics or real policies. Which is a shame.”
He said there was no doubt that Clinton had come across as more presidential.
“To her credit, she has managed to deal with Trump in a way that no Republican contender could. You have to give her enormous credit for that. None of the Republican contenders was able to land a blow on him, but Clinton managed to do that in the three debates,” he said.
However, he adds a word of caution.
“I don’t think you can count Trump out yet because, I think, the debates were important to some parts of America but not to all parts. Those people who like Trump genuinely like Trump. They don’t really care what comes across in the debate. To them, the debates are just part of what they consider the mainstream media and the establishment,” he said.
So who does Al-Yafai think will win? “It is still unknown who will win. Clinton is, in my opinion, very far ahead. But, as I said, the people who like Trump will vote for him regardless of what the media says or the establishment says. His supporters don’t care about his nastiness. They care about their candidate. Not only will they not believe what was said during the debates, the negative commentary, etc., they will go out in substantial numbers to vote for him.”
Al-Yafai said whoever became the president of America, it matters to the Middle East because of America’s influence in the region.
“Most Middle East watchers probably on balance prefer Clinton because she is a known quantity in the way that Trump is not. At the same time, the issues that most Middle Eastern countries have with the United States go far beyond one particular candidate, one particular party or one particular president. I think Clinton would be better at handling some of the difficulties that the region faces. We look to the Americans to be partners with us on the big challenges of the Middle East, such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq. With that in mind, we would prefer Clinton.”
But, he said, Clinton is only the best of what is on offer. “There has not been a presidential candidate that I have seen yet who understands the relationship that America needs with the Middle East and the relationship that Arabs deserve with America.”
His verdict: “You can’t count Trump out yet.”
Very precise but despised
For Raghida Dergham, New York-based columnist and bureau chief for Al-Hayat pan-Arab publication, Clinton is very scripted, very organized and very precise which is what she should be if she is running for such an office.
“Trump thinks it is all right to simply change the rules for the debates. It is very embarrassing to witness such name-calling in a debate for such a high office. I have watched earlier debates from 20 and 30 years ago and I saw people discuss policies. These debates are more of a show than an opportunity to debate matters of importance,” she told Arab News.
She does not think that the debates have won any supporters for Clinton from among those who do not like her to begin with.
“People despise her for being part of the establishment. They do not trust her. There are strong feelings against her by many people. I don’t think she came out of the debate in any way that will change the minds of those who are already sure of where they stand,” she said. “Clinton was, however, probably effective with those who are undecided and who are looking for something that will sway them one way or another.”
Through the debates, she showed that she has the temperament to lead rather than just to react and be amusing or different. “She projected that she could be in the White House and take on this big responsibility,” said Dergham. “Those who dislike her are going to say she did not do a good job in the past so why should we believe her now? Those who are opposed to Clinton are not only opposed to Clinton, they are opposed to the (Obama) administration.”
Dergham said she was very disturbed by Trump’s “simple-mindedness” when it comes to Middle Eastern issues that are of concern to the world.
“The way he speaks about Russian President Vladimir Putin is frightening because he does not look at the actions of Russia in the region. He is only focused on saying from his point of view who won, who lost. He thinks the Russians have won, the (Obama) administration has lost. I mean both — Russia and the Obama administration — have contributed to the misery of what is going on in Syria. But it is really offensive that Trump looks at this as who won and who lost when so many people are dying and suffering and when there is so much human tragedy.”
As somebody from the region, Dergham has multiple concerns. “I am concerned about Trump’s approach to all the people of the Middle East as well as to Muslims and to immigrants. I am disturbed by his dismissal of people en masse. I don’t think he is going to reset Obama’s administration’s policies. Clinton will try to reset ties with the Gulf countries, probably because she knows it is time to reset the relationship. Trump will play outside the rules and not inside them. That would probably lead some to say it is time to do that because playing by the rules, we only got where we did not want to be in Syria and in Mosul both of which are a catastrophe.”
Don’t count Trump out
So who won the debates? For Dergham, “Those who love Trump, love his brash approach; they love his facial expressions and they love that he called Clinton “a nasty woman.” They are the voters who are decided. With the undecided, I think, Clinton won the last debate.”
Her verdict: “The race is still open. It is always open until the last minute. You can never tell what surprises might come up. I think there could be a major event that might change things. It is always open until the votes are counted.”
Abeer Mishkhas, London-based Saudi journalist with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, felt Wednesday night’s debate improved Clinton’s chances because “Trump couldn’t get beyond his style of attacking and demeaning her. On the other hand, she was calm. She was in control. She was very statesmanly, or rather, states-womanly. She presented a very good argument for being president of the United States.”
She said whenever Trump talks about a foreign country, one gets the feeling that he is unaware of foreign policy issues and of how foreign policy is conducted.
“Trump takes a very simplistic view of how things are done. He talks about Putin and he says, ‘He likes me.’ He doesn’t know what he is talking about. Compare this to Clinton who served as secretary of state. She knows exactly what constitutes foreign policy. She has the experience and she seems clear about what she is going to do.”
Mishkhas does not like a couple of things about Clinton. “For instance, I don’t agree with her passive stand on the Palestinian issue. As US secretary of state, she was always pro-Israel. She did not support the Palestinians during their most difficult times when they were basically being massacred.”
She thinks Clinton might be tempted to go to war with Iran to demonstrate American might and to show that America is a superpower.
“She is just the way she is. She would gladly go to war with Iran just to prove that she is as tough as anyone else,” said Mishkhas.
She feels Clinton did not do well in the previous two debates. “I don’t know who instructed her to keep smiling. That did not give the correct impression of her. It seemed as if she was not ready. She took Trump lightly and talked about petty issues. She should have concentrated on policies and what exactly she wants to do. In Debate 3 on Wednesday night, however, she came out on top.”
Her verdict: “It is very hard to tell because when you listen to Trump supporters, they seem happy with what he is doing. They are the people who are not going to be influenced by TV debates anyway. It is very tricky. The race is still wide open.”
For Dr. Khaled Al-Shoqran, head of the Al-Rai Center for Strategic Studies in Amman, Clinton was the clear winner. “I think Clinton did better. She is fully aware of political and international issues. Trump is unacceptable because he knows very little about things outside the United States,” he told Arab News.
“Clinton has a good vision and she has good ideas for solving Middle Eastern problems. She is very vocal on Iraq, Syria and Yemen which is good,” he said. “She has a plan and she will be very successful as president of the United States. She did very well in all three debates.”
His verdict: “Clinton is far ahead.”