Arab animosity

March 07, 2004|By William A. Rugh

WASHINGTON - For the many Arabs who had become strong supporters and friends of America over the years, these are tough times. They are afraid to speak up and defend the relationship because criticism of the United States and its policies has become so widespread in the Arab world.

I have just returned from an extended trip to the Middle East, where I had spent most of my 30 years as a U.S. foreign service officer. I found Arab popular anger at Washington more intense than it has ever been, even during the 1950s when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser mobilized the Arab masses against us.

My wife and I were treated with warmth and great hospitality by the many friends we saw. They still love American democracy, education, technology and culture. But they are clearly deeply troubled, and puzzled, by the policies being pursued by the Bush administration, and they indicated it is now difficult to stand up in public and support America as they had done in the past.

For half a century, America had an excellent reputation among Arabs, diminished only by Washington's support for Israel that often was seen as unfair bias. For example, they applauded the first Bush administration for liberating Kuwait and then helping to broker an Arab-Israeli peace process that continued through the 1990s.

Now three issues have arisen simultaneously that have seriously damaged America's reputation.

First is the Arab-Israeli conflict. As violence escalated in Israel and Palestine, it appeared to the Arabs that Washington condemned only Palestinian terrorists and endorsed Israel's official use of force, which resulted in the loss of innocent life. Arabs believed that President Bush had abandoned the role of honest broker practiced by his father and Jimmy Carter. They failed to see any connection between 9/11 and the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. Although Mr. Bush announced a new "road map" to peace with fanfare, they know it has now completely failed.

Second is Iraq. No one in the region liked or defended Saddam Hussein, but opposition to our war was almost universal. They regarded it as unnecessary (they did not see him as a threat), and deeply resented Western intervention in an Arab state. Now that we have occupied Iraq for nearly a year and its people are suffering from violence, instability and lack of basic services, American credibility has suffered. They believe that we only invaded and occupied the country to control its oil and territory and cover our intentions with constantly changing excuses.

Third is Mr. Bush's call in November for Arab democracy and other reforms. Many Arabs have themselves been calling for reforms. But because the mistrust of Washington has grown so much, Mr. Bush's call has allowed opponents of change to charge that reformers are subservient to a U.S. desire to subvert Arab and Muslim culture.

For example, Jordanians told me that even in their pro-American country, the people resented Mr. Bush's November speech because they do not trust his intentions, since he appears so biased against Palestinians and because he invaded Iraq.

In Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries previously considered friendly to us, the press is reflecting very similar views. In Cairo, the Al Ahram newspaper carried a front-page report that Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the outspoken Egyptian-American advocate of democratic reform who recently spent time in jail for his views, had ghost-written Mr. Bush's November speech and had secretly received $2 million for doing so. The report was false but widely believed by Egyptians as part of a hostile U.S. conspiracy.

Mr. Bush's grand pronouncements on these issues without results have deeply undermined U.S. credibility and prestige throughout the Arab world.

Arab rulers of countries friendly to the United States are caught between intense popular anger at Washington and a desire to maintain cordial official relations for economic, political and strategic reasons. Because the popular mood has shifted, they no longer can count on the support for a pro-American policy that they once enjoyed from the many friends of the United States among the educated middle classes.

This hostility is reflected in, and reinforced by, Arab television broadcasts. Most of the attacks are verbal, but on Feb. 13, in a Cairo cafe, an Egyptian stabbed two foreigners because he thought they were American (they turned out to be Europeans), saying he was angry about our policies. In Egypt, such violence against foreigners is rare and almost unheard-of against Americans.

The Bush administration expected Iraq quickly to become a model of democracy that would inspire reform elsewhere in the region, but that hasn't happened. However, the Arabs are closely following our own election campaign, and it is having the unintended effect of encouraging Arabs to think about democratic reform. It's probably better to serve as a role model at home than to try to intervene abroad to force change in foreign cultures.

William A. Rugh was ambassador to Yemen from 1984 to 1987 and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1992 to 1995.

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