Arabs, Anger, and America

The sources of Mideast aversion.


Beirut—Recently, a foreign correspondent in Beirut asked the opinion-page editor of one of Lebanon's leading newspapers about the tenor of the essays he was receiving. The editor's response was revealing: "Most writers feel they have to be opposed to the United States, but in this case they are equally uncomfortable siding with Osama bin Laden."

Therein lies a recurring dilemma of Arab intellectuals, and indeed of many Arabs: How does one escape from siding with the unsavory enemies of the U.S. while avoiding landing in the U.S. camp? Or, how does one oppose the U.S. while not backing its more unpleasant antagonists? The fact is that America has long been a favorite enemy in the Middle East, even if the usual claim is that this loathing is directed at "the U.S. government, not the American people."

Of course, there are many Arab writers and thinkers who have differing views of the U.S. and its role in the world. But it is fair to say that intellectual credibility in the Arab world (as in many Western countries) requires adopting an outlook that is, at least, systematically critical of the U.S. This constraint has frequently obstructed sensible thought. The result has in some cases been a predicament reminiscent of that of Communist intellectuals in the 1930s, who accepted the diktats of the Comintern, even when they contradicted their better judgment.

It may be useful to examine the sources of this aversion, before asking a question that has been long avoided: Why, in seeking a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (without doubt the main bone of contention between the Arab states and the U.S.), have Arab elites agreed to operate through Washington? In other words why, in the defining event of the contemporary Middle East, have many Arabs been so dependent on a power they cannot quite bring themselves to like?

Generally speaking, Arab intellectuals and opinion-makers have been influenced by four long-term factors when censuring the U.S.: Cold War attitudes; the failure of secular regimes in the Middle East; the question of Palestine; and uneasiness with globalization. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it is almost certainly one that applies to a vast majority of those who find the U.S. objectionable.

It is remarkable how many Arab intellectuals (often though not always older ones) revive Cold War preconceptions when judging the U.S. Like their liberal counterparts in the West, these Arab intellectuals continue to cast a tolerant eye on the former "peoples' democracies" for two reasons: first, Leftist values, allegedly embodied in various postwar socialisms, are still regarded as more humane than those of free-market capitalism; second, the U.S. is still perceived as an agent of neo-colonialism, whereas the U.S.S.R., despite unremitting proof to the contrary, is remembered as a sponsor of anti-colonialism.

Anachronistic Cold War responses dovetail with another conviction of Arab elites: that all-powerful states are acceptable, if they are politically and socially just. Most problems in the Arab world—poverty, over-population, rural migration, the absence of democracy, etc.—appear extensive enough to require state intervention. However, it is also true that the Arabs, throughout much of their history, have been accustomed to strong government, because it is virtually the only type of political system they have experienced. That is why Arab elites have sought deliverance not by jettisoning overbearing, paternalistic states, but by reforming and democratizing them. Lebanon alone has adopted a political model that limits central state power—a result of the country's peculiar communal composition.

The rub came when post-colonial Middle Eastern secular regimes failed to reform, democratize, or resolve pressing social and economic problems. What the Arabs received instead was a diet of traditional autocracy in modern garb. In 1954 the Lebanese-British historian Albert Hourani, whose Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age remains a classic of Middle East intellectual history, could still yearn for an Arab world that integrated the Liberal values that earlier drove European modernism. The region's failure to do so demoralized many of its intellectuals, who would accuse the U.S.—rightly in many cases—of favoring the intolerant regimes that oppressed them.

This led to a paradox: the Arab intellectual elite, not wanting to adopt the free-market ways of an abhorred U.S., moved to the Left. In some countries this led to communist- or socialist-inspired coups, as in Iraq, Syria or Libya. Elsewhere, regimes unilaterally adopted socialist principles, as in Egypt. The obvious foe in the wake of these Leftwards movements was the U.S.

In 1981 the Lebanese-American political scientist, Fouad Ajami, wrote The Arab Predicament, a gloomy extension of Hourani's hopeful Arabic Thought. Ajami, who is routinely disparaged by Arab intellectuals for his overt pro-Americanism, examined the failure of the Middle East's secular regimes in light of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The war was a disaster for the Arabs, and as Ajami recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, it led to an Islamic revival that alone seemed to offer a chance for success. "The secular fathers begot this strange breed of holy warriors," noted Ajami, a view undisputed by Arab Leftists. Once again America could not escape condemnation: the Islamists had no patience for its corrupt ways, while the disappointed secularists associated the U.S. with Israel, the instrument of their defeat in the 1967 war

It is after 1967 that Palestine became the paramount sticking point between the Arab world and the U.S. No issue provokes as much unanimity in a fractured Arab world as the sorry fate of the Palestinians. The U.S. stands at the center of this drama, both as culprit and vehicle for salvation. The Arabs have for decades been on solid ground morally when addressing the Palestinian problem. Proof of this is that both the U.S. and Israel have steadily moved towards recognition of Palestinian national rights, the very same ones that they refused to consider two decades ago. This progress, however, has not been sufficiently appreciated or exploited by Arab opinion-makers, who still use the term "Oslo process" pejoratively. They refuse to accept that Oslo returned Yasser Arafat to his land and legitimized Palestinian statehood.

In the past year, following the outbreak of the Intifada, the Arabs have related to the Palestinian problem almost exclusively in emotional terms. There is some justification in doing so, if only because of the imbalance in firepower—and casualties—between the Palestinians and Israel. The Arabs have been particularly incensed with the policies of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is believed to oppose giving up significant amounts of land to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. They are probably right in thinking so, and the U.S. has taken a great deal of time before giving this hypothesis serious consideration.

The problem is that even as the U.S. swerved on Palestinian rights—a few weeks ago it formally endorsed a Palestinian state—the Arab public and intellectuals continued to regard U.S. intentions suspiciously. More seriously, no Arab state picked up politically on the changes in Washington in order to corner Sharon. On the contrary, most Middle Eastern regimes continue to curry favor at home by supporting a continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, deterring U.S. efforts to mediate between the parties.

The final motivation for opposing the U.S.—nervousness with globalization—is complex, so defining a single Arab point of view would be inaccurate. However, the misgivings that many Arab intellectuals have toward globalization emerged naturally from the inability of Arab states to modernize adequately. In general, many Arab intellectuals perceive globalization as a byword for U.S. hegemony. In this they are influenced by leftist ideologies, by past anti-colonialist attitudes, and by a feeling that globalization is socially inequitable—the last not altogether untrue.

On the other hand, quite a few Arab intellectuals consistently overlook the potential advantages that their countries might derive from globalization, and dismiss the rewards of genuinely free markets. The appearance of Al-Jazeera as a singular global Arab source of information has shown how shortsighted this bias may be. The appeal and reputation of the station might help reconcile Arab opinion-makers somewhat with a phenomenon that allows them, for once, to disseminate their messages worldwide.

Much must be done by both the Arab countries and the U.S. if relations are to improve. However, the Arab states in particular should develop a more confident autonomy free of knee-jerk anti-Americanism or unpopular subservience to the U.S.—on specific major issues, so that the U.S. can be regarded as either friend or adversary, depending on the situation. In changing their assessments of the U.S., however, many in the Arab world will have to alter their perceptions of their own societies, since the U.S. is often a convenient scapegoat to explain domestic ills.

The place to start is Palestine. If the U.S. has been so intolerably partial on the Palestinian issue, then it's time for the Arabs to circumvent Washington. There are two options: to declare war on Israel, something few Arabs desire or expect will succeed; or to address the Israelis directly and set down realistic demands for a settlement of the Palestinian imbroglio. Palestine was always primarily an Arab-Israeli concern. There is no reason why it should not again be so. It's time for the Arab elites solve a half-century conundrum that still baffles them.

Many opinion-makers in the Arab world today find themselves in an intellectual no-man's land: neither with bin Laden nor with the U.S.; angry at U.S. behavior towards the Palestinians, but unwilling, or unable, to address Israel in a unified way. The Arabs have legitimate beefs, but the U.S. is not the source of all their problems. On the contrary, the Arab elites' obsession with America, by deflecting self-questioning and self-criticism, has become an obstacle to breaking free from the cliches that tend to pervade the Middle East. It is only beyond those cliches that the true emancipation of Arab intellect and culture awaits.