Author & Professor Gilbert Achcar

The author and professor of development studies discusses his text Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising and the aftermath of the presidential election from a global perspective.

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, researched and taught in Beirut, Paris and Berlin, and is currently, since 2007, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). His many books include: The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 15 languages; Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky; the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of NarrativesMarxism, Orientalism, CosmopolitanismThe People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, and most recently Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, first up a conversation about how President-elect Donald Trump will approach his foreign policy goals. We’ll talk with Professor Gilbert Achcar, one of the best analysts of the Middle East and the Arab world.

Then we’ll pivot to a conversation with Rashad Robinson and Sonali Kolhatkar about what to expect from President-elect Donald Trump on domestic policy and what those who did not support Mr. Trump can and must do over the next four years.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that in just a moment.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Gilbert Achcar is a Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His latest text is called “Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising”. Professor Achcar, good to have you on this program.

Gilbert Achcar: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

Tavis: We’ll get to some domestic policy later in this conversation, domestic policy under a Trump White House. But I wanted to start our conversation tonight talking about some hot spots around the globe. We, of course, had some conversation about this during the presidential campaign, but now these issues really come to the fore now that Mr. Trump in fact is the President-elect.

Let me start in no particular order with Iran. There was some conversation, of course, in these presidential debates about the Iran nuclear deal. What’s your sense now of how Mr. Trump is going to approach that particular deal as it is currently structured?

Achcar: Well, I mean, he said that he was going to revoke it because that was very bad and he very much attributed that to Obama, Barack Obama, and wanted to, you know, remove the whole legacy of Obama. But on this issue, I mean, he must deal with the European states, Germany, France, Britain, that were involved in this negotiation with the Iranians.

Europe has very much built on this Iran nuclear deal, and to revoke it one-sidedly for the United States would really be a problem. So he would need to go through the others and I don’t think the others will accept such a position.

Of course, it would have very severe consequences because Iran is already very much involved. But he might, you know, use the threat of doing that in order to get further concessions from the Iranians because one of the things he said, you know, he turned his weakness which is his lack of knowledge of international affairs into a virtue by saying, well, I’m unpredictable. That’s fine.

This is like playing the role of the madman, you know. And then, therefore, you feel the madman and he wants to compress very much with Barack Obama whom he described as a weak president and contrasted him with Vladimir Putin who he described as stronger than Obama. So this macho kind of perspective will definitely be in play.

Tavis: Speaking of this macho perspective that he has, is it possible or is it just hubris and his bloviating about revoking a deal–to your point, there’s so many other countries involved in this and it might not be something that he or Republicans agreed with when the deal was struck, but the deal is in place. Can you just unilaterally revoke that deal, the Iran nuclear deal?

Achcar: No. That’s the issue. Well, of course, the United States could always…

Tavis: Throw its weight around, yeah.

Achcar: Say that, you know, they’re part of the deal, which means what? Which means the sanctions, reinstating sanctions against Iran that were to be removed according to the deal. The Iranians may, you know, continue the deal with the Europeans and then try to in that way try to drive a wedge between the United States and the Europeans…

Tavis: How much blowback would we, the United States, get if Mr. Trump decided that he was going to try to exit the deal or to exact some other concessions or reinstate the sanctions? What kind of blowback would we get for going back on a deal that we’d already agreed to?

Achcar: Well, it’s difficult to tell because he is–I mean, all of the pronouncements of Donald Trump in foreign policy has been very contradictory, you know. He’s said many things and they’re contrary and he changes his mind or changes the tone, changes the vocabulary on many issues.

But for instance, if you take the Middle East, he says that he would regard Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, as a lesser evil with whom the United States should do business, and he would work with the Russians on this issue which would be a dramatic turn of events, a very sharp change on this issue.

But this would actually benefit Iran because Iran is the main supporter of the Syrian regime. So on the one hand, he advocates a policy for Syria which fits Iranian interests perfectly. And on the other hand, he wants to antagonize Iran. So there is, you know…

Tavis: Yeah. There’s a disconnect there.

Achcar: There is a disconnect there, an incoherence.

Tavis: Yeah. Incoherence is even better, yeah. Since you mentioned Russia, obviously, Russia was a huge issue in this campaign, least of all because of the emails that we were told by some at least who believe they were hacked by the Russians.

The question is, how do you see Trump’s relationship with Putin? How do you see our, the U.S.’s, relationship with Russia? How does it complicate the Syrian situation? Just talk to me about Trump and Russia.

I mean, if Hillary Clinton had won, the question for me is pretty simple. You went after Putin pretty hard in the campaign. Now that you’re President-elect, Secretary Clinton, how do you press the reset button? A simple question. I know what the question is for her. I’m not even sure I know what the question is for Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Achcar: Yeah, yeah. You know, there is one side of Donald Trump which is this old right wing isolationism that Pat Buchanan, for instance, was representing of this country. So there is one part of his discourse which is like this. Therefore, I mean, his attitude towards Russia is partly based on that and partly based on, you know, the affinities between strong men, you know, this macho conception of politics.

I mean, the indications he gave were that he would be willing to accept Russia’s interests in its own sphere of influence, in its traditional sphere of influence, so that may involve a different attitude on the Ukrainian issue. He has already said that he would put much harsher conditions about the NATO and fulfilling any NATO commitments. And all this is music to the ear of Vladimir Putin.

Now whether will he deliver on this or because he is not alone–he’s working with a team of people from the Republican establishment and the rest–I think the true thing is that definitely he will meet Putin. That will be probably one of the first meetings he gets. He will try to get some agreements, but whether this goes very far in this direction remains to be seen.

Tavis: I don’t know what will come of it for the American people, that is to say, the relationship that Mr. Trump will have with Mr. Putin. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s hard to imagine that Trump and Putin would get along any worse than Putin and Obama got along.

Achcar: Absolutely. Or that Clinton would have…

Tavis: Or better, yeah.

Achcar: Clinton would have had a very, you know, tense relation with Russia, even more tense than under Obama, because of what you said, exactly.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Syria earlier, let me ask you quickly here. There are many who believe that the U.S. hasn’t really stepped up on the Syrian refugee crisis in the way that we should anyway. We’ve let so few people in this country, Syrian refugees, comparatively speaking, to other nations around the globe. But given Trump’s rhetoric in the campaign, one has to believe that he’s gonna shut that thing down.

Achcar: Absolutely. He will slam the door. I mean, he said this several times. He started, you know–he used the Islamophobic argument at some point. He wanted to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

And when he was told that that would be unconstitutional, he changed the discourse into, you know, severe vetting of anyone coming from countries where you have terrorism, which is a huge lot of countries actually.

So, yeah, for this issue, I mean, in Tampa, Florida a couple of days ago, he just said that he would be for creation of a safe zone in Syria that would be funded by the Gulf states.

So that’s, again, an improvisation very much. I mean, it looks very much like improvised because there’s an incoherence in his position. He wants to support Assad, he wants to create a safe zone. There is something that doesn’t work here.

Tavis: What say you, then, about this hostile attitude that he had clearly and consistently through the campaign against China?

Achcar: I mean, on the issue of China, it’s mostly on the issue of trade that he has this very harsh attitude, not only on geopolitics, if you want.

Geopolitics, he didn’t mention anything and, from that angle, I mean, comments are that the Chinese would expect that in the same way that he is diffusing the tension with the Russians, he would also diffuse the tension of the Chinese on the South China Sea where you have, you know, these problems between China, the United States, the Philippines and all these countries. So that’s again, more a question mark than any certainty.

That is, with Hillary Clinton, we would know and we would actually be able to say even in details what would her foreign policy be. I mean, she’s a very known quantity in this regard. He is a completely unknown quantity. You know, he’s said so many things that it’s difficult to make anything of it.

Tavis: Here’s my final question. In this ongoing fight against ISIS or ISIL, since you referenced Secretary Clinton, there are some of us–I’m one of those persons who was on record saying that, for my taste, she was still a bit too hawkish on foreign policy to begin with.

But to your point, at least we were clear on where we stood with Hillary Clinton on foreign policy. With Mr. Trump, one doesn’t so much know because he’s been all over the map on this.

I guess the question is, as we continue this war on terror, how will we be impacted if he continues with an attitude, with a spirit, with a style of bluster and bloviation, how is that going to be received in the Middle East and, for that matter, around the world coming from the head of the American empire? That kind of attitude–whatever you think about Barack Obama, he had his own failings. He didn’t have that as a failing.

Achcar: Absolutely. Well, actually, this would be, and is already, quite well received by those characters that resemble the Donald Trump character in the Middle East, and there are quite a few of them, as you know.

You have Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president, who took power through a military coup. You have Erdoğan, the Turkish president and, of course, it’s not a coincidence that these too try to develop the relations with Vladimir Putin and with Russia.

They will find in Donald Trump someone with whom they would have more affinities than they had with Barack Obama, and the kind of very cautious policies and its non-determination on democracy promotion or not.

This will end with Trump. I mean, Trump would not care at all about democracy, U.N. rights, whatever, you know. His view is that dictators are fine. That’s better for this region than anything else. That’s his view basically, and that’s in this logic that he says, well, we should do business with Bashar al-Assad.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds to go here. I assume, then, you believe that Trump’s election will aid and abet the relapse in the Arab uprising?

Achcar: Oh, definitely, because this relapse is a counter-revolutionary phase, you know, You had first an upsurge, a revolutionary phase, in 2011, 2012. And then you had a shift into a counter-revolutionary phase that started in 2013.

And from that angle, the election of Donald Trump is, you know, a very bad thing for the future of this revolutionary process, which is far from being over. We’ll see a lot of new upsurges, crises, and we see them all permanently the key issues, the social issue, the economic issue, are very far from being resolved, and they’re actually worsening. So that’s the problem.

Tavis: The text is called “Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising”. The election of Donald Trump as our President-elect will have huge impacts in that region of the world and beyond, as we’ve discussed tonight with Professor Gilbert Achcar. Professor, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights.

Achcar: I’m mainly thankful to you.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad ]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 14, 2016 at 4:22 pm