Having just returned from a short visit to the Arab world, I find that the disconnect between the United States’ Middle East policy debate and realities in the region, has never been greater than it is today.
The United States is now fully engaged on multiple fronts in the Arab world. In most instances the form that U.S. engagement has taken is both unilateral and confrontational. Each of these new thrusts represents a break from traditional U.S. diplomacy and the victory of the neo-conservative movement in shaping U.S. Middle East policy.
All at the same time, the United States is: occupying Iraq, challenging Syria with threats and sanctions, pressing for democratization throughout the region, and allowing Israel to wreak havoc with the Palestinians while feigning support for "a visionary Middle East peace plan".
The formulations underlying these various Middle East entanglements have been based on faulty ideologically derived assumptions. These include notions like: "they hate us because they hate our freedom" (thereby allowing the United States to absolve itself from any responsibility in generating alienation and anger in the region); "they attack us because we have been weak and indecisive" (thereby validating the United States’ use of unrelenting force in an effort to force submission); and "once Arabs democratize, Palestine will lose its appeal as a radicalizing theme" (thereby justifying sidelining the peace process). These have been accepted and have been made operational.
In the process, we have not engaged in dialogue or listened to determine the true feelings of the Arab people. Nor have we paid attention to history, even recent history, in an effort to understand how Arabs view their circumstances or see our role in contributing to their current problems.
Hence the great disconnect. And as a result, the U.S. role in the region is heading towards disaster.
While fault clearly can be placed on the shoulders of those who have trumped U.S. diplomacy and forced this change in policy, the Arab side must accept some responsibility for this dismal state of affairs as well.
Simply put, the Arab world has not engaged the U.S. debate on terms that would challenge the bizarre assumptions of those who sought to wreak havoc in the region. For example, as the post-Camp David myth ("Barak offered the best deal ever. Arafat rejected it and resorted to violence.") was being projected in an effort to delegitimize Oslo and validate an all out assault to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians offered no effective response. Similarly, after the Arab League endorsed Crown Prince Abdullah’s striking initiative, little was done to nurture it. It died not because the United States and Israel ignored it but because the Arab side did not launch a campaign to elaborate it and to project the dramatic change it represented.
At the same time, while both the Saudis and Syrians have, in different ways, been under attack in the United States they have not responded in a manner proportionate to the challenges they faced. As a result, they have become more, not less, vulnerable to even sharper attacks.
Like it or not, the real struggle now being waged is not on the many battlefields of the Middle East but it is in the struggle over ideas that will shape the U.S. policy debate in the minds of the American people. If America is the dominant force in the world then the struggle to make change must occur here and must be waged on the political front. If the U.S.’s neo-conservatives are wrong then extremists in the Middle East are also wrong. Just as American force cannot impose itself or transform an unwilling and unprepared Middle East, those extremists who advocate force against the United States will also fail with their violence only serving to strengthen negative trends in American policy making.
A third way must be found. There are Iraqis and other Arabs, for example, who are advocating an alternative path to the current, now failing, U.S. effort at pacification in Iraq. They should be supported and emboldened to bring their ideas into the American political debate. Similarly the reform program advocated by Crown Prince Abdullah and Saudi voices for change like those of H.R.H. Prince Al-Waleed must be encouraged to bring their ideas forward in a more dramatic and forceful way. Reformist currents among Syria’s leadership must be strengthened and that country’s fledging public diplomacy effort should be given an enhanced role because it is sorely needed.
Finally, critical initiatives like the recently negotiated Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Accords and what is called the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreement, should also be pushed more aggressively since they build on the pre-Sharon peace effort and have the ability to refute the myth that "peace is impossible". Such efforts can strengthen the internal debate in Israel and the United States against the Likud mindset that currently dominates both countries’ policy-making establishments.
Change can come, but it will require a reassessment of Arab strategy. Passivity won’t work. Neither will force or threats of force-these only play into the hands of those who have the ability to use greater force in return. Neither will change come about by making appeals using concepts like "international legitimacy" that simply have no resonance in the United States. If part of America’s trouble in the Arab world is due to the fact that it doesn’t listen to the Arab people and therefore speaks and acts in terms that do not address Arab concerns and realities, the same can be said of why Arabs are in trouble in the United States.
A new Arab strategic approach to the United States must be developed. Its need is immediate. As bad as the current situation may be, it can still get worse. There are political forces in the United States who want the confrontation to expand in order to sharpen the contradictions. Change will not come about by complaining about injustice. Whining is not a strategy.
A new approach that projects a new vision of the Arab word, real solutions to vexing problems, and the real humanity and aspirations of the Arab people can help change American minds and ultimately change American policy.