Current debates in the US over the many aspects of Middle East policy point to a disturbing reality: Americans do not know the Arab world, its people, or its culture. This is why US political discussions of Middle East issues are so wildly off base, why the American public has been so accepting of bad policy decisions, and why we continue to act in ways that alienate the Arab world from the US.
Recognizing this growing gap, the Bush Administration and most US-based foreign policy think tanks propose "public diplomacy" initiatives as the solution. While there is no doubt that most Arabs do not understand America and its complex political and social culture, the more pressing need, I believe, is for the US to understand the Arab world.
All of this presents a challenge to which Arab leadership should respond.
This state of affairs is disturbing given the deep ties that bind the US to this critical region. First and foremost are the human connections. After all, over one million American men and women have fought there, over one hundred thousand Americans live and work throughout the Middle East and Arab Gulf states, and hundred of thousands more come each year as tourists and visitors.
Arabs, too, have a long history in the US. Over 3 million Americans are of Arab descent. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs have come to the US to study, many earning advanced degrees (in fact, a significant percentage of cabinet ministers in the Gulf have received their education in the US), and millions of others have come to visit or do business with American partners.
These are only some of the ties that bind us together. There are also the mutually beneficial economic interests. For example, American companies are the largest source of investment in many Arab countries and the US, in turn, is the recipient of most Arab foreign investment.
And then there is the fact that since the end of the Vietnam war, the US has spent more foreign aid, sold more weapons, sent more troops, fought more wars, lost more lives, and invested more political and diplomatic capital in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, and yet, all of this has been done without any real understanding of the region and its needs.
The sad fact that must be recognized is that for most Americans the Middle East didn’t matter until 9/11. Nineteen terrorists hell-bent murder and damaging the US-Arab relationship changed all that. Out of their anger and fear, Americans began to ask questions. The problem was only compounded by those who were called upon by media to provide the answers: analysts (who, at first, didn’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq); commentators and "experts" (with a long history of anti-Arab bias); reporters (many of whom covered the region with no understanding of its history or culture); and politicians (who exploited the public’s fear and anger for their own advantage). Any political figure or pundit who knew a few words in Arabic (like shahid, jihad, madrassah, Wahabi, etc.) and could use two of them in a sentence was seen as an "expert." The tragic result of all this was that negative stereotypes were recycled as fact and conventional wisdom was presented as reality.
Real damage was done. Having been fed a steady diet of misinformation that passed for knowledge, Americans, who still knew little about the Arab world or Islam, began to think that they did know. Negative attitudes hardened and half-cocked ideas were sold as good policy options.
It was in this context that the Administration was able to term Ariel Sharon "a man of peace" while telling Palestinians that they had to create a working democracy before they could have their rights; or that an invasion of Iraq would bring democracy to the Middle East; or that the reason the US has a problem in the Arab world is because there weren’t enough democracies in the region; or that extremists hate the US because American stands for freedom.
It was ignorance of the Arab world and the needs and aspirations of the Arab people that first got the US into a hole in the Middle East. It is more bad policy, driven by a distorted understanding of the region that is making the hole deeper.
Moralizing about this sad situation won’t change anything, nor will waiting for Americans to spontaneously wake up and realize the error of their polices and demand change. Understanding will not occur because we will it or want it to occur.
Now some Arab leaders have recognized the dangers inherent in this situation. They understand the importance of the ties that bind together the Arab and American people–”the shared interests and the mutual benefits derived from the long relationship. But too little has been done to actually create change in the current negative dynamic. Some Arabs have begun to invest in educational programs to educate Americans about the Arab world and Islam. And some leaders have sought to directly engage American elites and opinion makers in an effort to change opinion. But it is still not enough.
If the need to educate and make change in the US thinking and policy is as great as I believe it is, then the Arab world can not wait for Americans to create this changed environment on their own. The politics of America preclude the change from occurring without a strong push from the outside. Arab leadership must undertake its own massive public diplomacy campaign in the US. Such efforts were discussed shortly after 9/11. They need to be resuscitated, developed, and implemented. If the continued deterioration on the Israeli-Palestinian and Iraq fronts and the damage some during the disturbing debates over the Dubai Ports World matter make clear, the situation, left untended can only grow worse.