America must defuse mounting Arab anger

May 07, 2002|By Fawaz A. Gerges

BEIRUT - President Bush's recent success in finding a compromise to end the siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and create political momentum, especially his decision to convene a Middle East peace conference this summer, comes none too soon.

It was not only an important step toward defusing the escalating hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis but was a means of salvaging what is left of declining U.S. influence and preserving America's vital interests in the Arab world. Although previous anti-American sentiments in Muslim lands focused mainly on foreign policy, America itself appears to be under siege in the Middle East today.

Assaults on the symbols of American prestige and power have become daily occurrences. Throughout the region, U.S. establishments - embassies and cultural and recreational centers - are being picketed and attacked by angry young men and women who accuse the United States of collusion with Israel in its offensive against the Palestinians and providing it with a diplomatic cover.

Last week in Beirut, I visited McDonald's, Burger King and TGI Fridays, usually crowded with adults and teen-agers. The once-festive atmosphere in these American cultural icons is gone, and managers bemoan their serious business losses. For the first time, young men and women seem to be boycotting these previously popular places as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians.

The dissipation of Muslim empathy for Americans after the hideous attacks of Sept. 11 is one of the main casualties of the Israeli incursion into the West Bank. If winning the war on terrorism, according to Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, "requires us to help change the way people think," then this war is already lost.

The Arab street is boiling with anger at the United States for failing to restrain Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and allegedly giving him "a green light" to destroy the Palestinian Authority. Particularly alarming is the politicization of Arab youth, a constituency that had been apolitical and fascinated with the American idea.

Placards at a big demonstration near a formerly popular KFC, situated on the Beirut sea front, called for "boycotting American goods." A young woman distributing anti-U.S. flyers said, "America is neither a neutral bystander nor an honest broker. Its fingerprints are all over the blood bath in Palestinian cities."

Discussions with students, activists and opinion makers indicate a deepening, hardening anti-Americanism. Many Arabs, regardless of their background, no longer distinguish between Israel and the United States. They blame Americans for the misfortunes that have befallen their world.

The U.S.-educated Arab elite has been harshly critical of the United States. For example, a young philosophy scholar, educated at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, said after my lecture at the American University in Beirut last week, "The U.S. position on the peace process is much worse than that of Israel."

This blanket assertion reflects the angry Arab mood and Arabs' frustration with Washington's perceived insensitivity and hostility toward Muslims. Opinion makers and commentators keep the public's fire raging.

It is unclear if the U.S. foreign policy establishment appreciates the inherent risks to American citizens and national interests. Too little attention is being paid in Washington to the reverberations of the Middle East crisis on U.S. national security. Administration officials ignore the rising anti-American tide at their own peril.

President Bush laid down the broad contours of a fair peace settlement: terminating Israeli military occupation and establishing a viable Palestine state politically and economically in return for Israel's security and its integration into the regional landscape.

U.S. vital interests require a sustained diplomatic effort to defuse Israeli-Palestinian hostilities that fuel anti-Americanism. Mr. Bush's recent initiatives to calm the deteriorating situation, which include the proposed summer Middle East peace conference, represent a step in the right direction. Containing the violence and restarting a substantive political dialogue must be given immediate priority.

More than ever, now is the time for political clarity and decisiveness, not for diplomatic ambiguity. Nothing less than America's moral authority, credibility and world peace is at stake.

Fawaz A. Gerges, who has just returned from the Middle East, holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and is author of the forthcoming The Islamists and the West.

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