U.S.-Arab Disconnect

As the Arab Spring continues to challenge dictators, demolish old structures and ponder road maps for a better future, the U.S. remains committed to its failed policies, misconceptions, and selfish interests. Arabs may disagree on many things, but few disagree on the fact that there is now no turning back. The age of the dictator—the Mubaraks and Bin Alis—is fading. Debates in the region are now concerned with democracy, civil society, and citizenship. The only Arab intellectuals who still speak of terrorism and nuclear weapons are those commissioned by Washington- based think tanks or those desperate to appear on Fox News. 


Put simply, Arab priorities are no longer American priorities, as they may have been when Mubarak was still president of Egypt. Leading a group of Arab moderates, Mubarak’s main responsibility was portraying U.S. foreign policy as the core of Egypt’s national interest as well. Meanwhile, in Syria, Bashar al-Assad was caught in the realm of contradiction. While desperate to receive high marks on his performance in the so- called war on terror, he still sold himself as a guardian of Arab resistance.


When the U.S. took on Afghanistan in late 2001, the term “war on terror” became a staple in Arab culture. Ordinary Arabs were forced to take stances on issues that mattered little to them, but which served as the backbone of U.S. military and political strategy in the region.


The Arab people—denied rights, dignity, and even a semblance of hope—were mere subjects of opinion polls concerning Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and other issues that hardly registered on their daily radar of suffering and humiliation.


Meanwhile, shrewd Arab dictators exploited America’s obsession with its security. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh had to choose between a hostile takeover by the U.S. to “defeat al-Qaeda” or carry out the dirty war himself. He opted for the latter, soon to discover the perks of such a role. When the Yemeni people took to the streets demanding freedom and democracy, Saleh sent a loyal army and Republican Guard units to kill al-Qaeda fighters (whose numbers suddenly exploded) and also to kill unarmed democracy protesters. The straightforward but shrewd act was the equivalent of an unspoken bargain with the United States: “I will fight your bad guys, as long as I am allowed to destroy mine.”


Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi exploited America’s priorities as well. His regime’s emphasis on the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the ranks of the opposition received a fair amount of validation in western media. Qaddafi went for the jugular in his attempts at wowing the west, suggesting that his war against the rebels was no different than Israel’s war against Palestinian “extremists.” The strange thing is, the language spoken by the U.S. and Arab dictators is largely absent from the lexicon of ordinary Arabs aspiring for their long-denied basic rights.


The third UN Arab Development Report, published in 2005, surmised that in a modern Arab state, “the executive apparatus resembles a black hole which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes.” Things didn’t fare much better for Arab states in 2009 when the fifth volume stated: “While the state is expected to guarantee human security, it has been, in several Arab countries, a source of threat undermining both international charters and national constitutional provisions.”


A May Time magazine story entitled, “How the Arab Spring Made Bin Laden an Afterthought” seemed to celebrate the collective, secular nature of Arab revolutions when it reminded readers that, “There were no banners hailing Osama bin Laden in Egypt’s Tahrir Square; no photos of his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri at anti-government protests in Tunisia, Libya or even Yemen.” The truthful depiction, reproduced in hundreds of reports throughout western media, is deceitful at best. The fact is, the al-Qaeda model never captured the imagination of mainstream Arab society. Arab revolutions didn’t challenge Arab society’s perception of al-Qaeda, as the latter had barely occupied even a tiny space in the collective Arab imagination.


Nonetheless, these revolutions have yet to challenge the official American perception of the Arabs. An “Arab Attitudes, 2011” survey published last July by Zogby International communicated unsurprising views of six Arab nations, including the fact that Barak Obama’s popularity among Arabs had sunk to a new low of 10 percent. When Obama delivered his famous Cairo University speech in 2009, many Arabs felt that U.S.-Arab priorities might finally meet at some points. But U.S. policy didn’t shift in any favorable direction. The U.S. continued with its wars, its support of Israel, and its old alliances with the most corrupt Arab elites. Arabs discovered (or rediscovered) that not only were there no meeting points between their aspirations and U.S. policy, but the two were actually on a crash course.


U.S. policies in an oil-rich region like the Middle East involve the complete hijacking of Arab aspirations and the national interests of most Arab countries to fit U.S. priorities. With the help of Arab dictators, U.S. misguided policies brought untold harm to Arab nations. Now millions of Arabs, whose priorities and expectations were so completely discounted, are showing they are no longer willing to accept that reality. 


 Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is a syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.