In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

The US in the Mideast: ignorance abroad

Posted by smeddum on July 8, 2008

The Daily Star
By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star staff
Saturday, July 05, 2008

One of the frightening lessons one learns from spending time in Washington is that most of the men and women who make, or influence, American policy in the Middle East actually have little or no first-hand experience of the region. They know very little about its people or its political trends at the grassroots level, as the Iraq experience reconfirms so painfully.

American policy-making throughout the Middle East remains defined largely by three principal forces: pro-Israeli interests and lobbies in the United States that pander almost totally to Israeli government positions; an almost genetic, if understandable, need to respond to the 9/11 terror attack against the US by politically and militarily striking against Middle Eastern targets; and a growing determination to confront and contain Iran and its assorted Sunni and Shiite Arab allies.

A significant consequence of Washington’s deep pro-Israeli tilt has been to ignore public sentiments throughout the region, which in turn generates greater criticism of the US. It is not clear if American policymakers ignore Middle Eastern public opinion because of ignorance and diplomatic amateurism, or because of the structural dictates of pro-Israeli compliance.

This is a regrettable situation, given that we now know quite well the sentiments of majorities of people in Middle Eastern lands. A significant factor in people’s attitudes toward the US is its policy toward Israel and Palestine. Other issues also influence how Middle Easterners see the US – such as Iraq, oil, and promoting democratic or autocratic regimes – but the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a huge determinant of America’s standing in Middle Eastern eyes.

A historic new mindset has developed in recent years as a result of the consistent and often growing criticism of the US and Israel: a penchant for militancy and defiance that continues to spread around the Middle East, transcending Iranian-Arab, Shiite-Sunni, or secular-religious divides that are so often highlighted and exaggerated in Washington’s distorted view of the Middle East.

I have argued for years now that a new spirit of populist defiance, resistance and self-assertion is the single most important strategic development in the Middle East. Large numbers of Arabs, Iranians and Turks – hundreds of millions of people – have shed their legacy of passive acquiescence in their own suffering, weakness, marginalization and victimization. Instead, they are determined to take their fate into their own hands, and to challenge and checkmate those who would keep them in their previous vulnerable, dehumanized state.

At the domestic level, more and more people around the Middle East actively demand, and when possible work to craft, a life and society that offer them more human dignity and citizen rights. These include such basic issues as security, opportunity, socioeconomic needs and the ability to express their cultural or political identity. At the regional level, this spirit of self-assertive defiance is more difficult to manifest or actualize, but it comes through very clearly in people’s attitudes, which are now well captured in public opinion polls.

A powerful new analysis of this phenomenon has just been published in Washington by the Brookings Institution, and deserves close study by anyone interested in the Middle East. The study by Shibley Telhami, the respected University of Maryland professor and senior fellow at Brookings’ Saban Center, is titled “Does the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Still Matter? Analyzing Arab Public Perceptions.” It reviews public opinion polling data from six Arab countries during the years 2002-2008.

Telhami concludes that “the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a central issue for most Arabs … [and] the prism through which most Arabs view the world.” He adds that the Arab public consistently and overwhelmingly judges the US according to its policies, not its values, and that the role of the Arab-Israeli conflict in forming people’s view of the US remains very important. Most of the Arab public believes that the US attacked Iraq in order to help strengthen Israel, and Arabs see Israel and the US as the two main threats to them. Israel and the US are connected in the minds of most Arabs “in a way which makes anger with one hard to separate from the other.”

The leaders of Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran rank highest among those whom Arabs respect, Telhami explains, a sign that Arabs like militants who defy the US and Israel. This sense of defiant militancy seems to be spreading throughout the region. The gap between “militant” publics and conservative regimes also is growing in the Arab world, he says.

The importance of these findings is contained in their consistency over time, and their verification through multiple means. Washington policymakers and think-tank zealots who prefer to ignore these realities, and instead act mainly on the basis of pro-Israeli inclinations or arm-twisting, are free to do so, of course. The cost, however, becomes more obvious for those who wish to see the real world as it is: a place characterized by massive, region-wide militancy and defiance, anchored squarely in resistance to American-Israeli aggression.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

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