American Perplexity about Middle East Trends

Rami G. Khouri

ATLANTA -- After an extended stay in the United States that allowed me to speak with Middle East specialists and interested citizens in many cities, I sense a new theme that broadly defines American attitudes about developments in the Middle East: perplexity. Of course, there is neither a single view among the diversity that comprises the United States, nor is there a single focus to the Middle East, which includes among its main issues the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, oil, terrorism and the ongoing Arab uprisings and citizen revolts for dignity and democracy.
Many Americans -- officials and ordinary citizens alike -- seem slightly confused about how to react to these new realities across the region, because they emphasize two phenomena that had always been largely avoided in American eyes: the true values and sentiments of ordinary Arab men and women, and the persistent contradictions in American policy in the Middle East. The ongoing Arab citizen revolts have forced Americans to reconsider how they had viewed the people of the region, now that hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Arabs are out in the streets fighting, and in many cases dying, for their liberty. Americans pride themselves on being in the global vanguard of societies that value liberty and democracy, and in the Middle East a mainstay of American policy and Israeli propaganda (the two often coincide) has been that Israel is the only democracy in the region, and therefore it enjoys unquestioning American support.
The first level of American perplexity is how to respond to Arabs who are willing to risk their lives for freedom and democracy. There is no clear consensus on this across the United States. On the one hand, Americans instinctively are attracted to support subjugated people who fight for their freedom, whether in Kosovo or Benghazi. On the other hand, free Arabs are likely to express views, make demands or adopt policies that go against prevailing American positions.
The reality of more free and democratic Arabs shatters the Zionist line of Israel being the only democracy in the region, which takes away from those lazy or ideologically terrorized American politicians the easy excuse they had to be blindly pro-Israeli. Americans find themselves forced to define their support for Israel in more nuanced and realistic terms, which is a challenge that Americans are not used to.
Americans also seem hesitant to fully and enthusiastically support the Arab citizen revolts because these target Arab regimes that have been long and close allies of the United States. Washington finds itself in a position of having to decide if it values liberty for the citizenry more than it values close ties with family-based authoritarian Arab security regimes. This would normally be a no-brainer, with Americans wholeheartedly supporting freedom over autocracy. But in the Middle East two other factors kick in that distort American policy-making: Israel and oil. These two priorities for American politicians generate the confusion, perplexity and imprecision that still define the broad American response to events in the region.
This was evident in the extreme American government reaction to the Palestinian move in September to secure United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, when Washington lined up fully with Israel, as it has usually done. The oil factor is most evident in the situation in Bahrain, where the United States seems fully supportive of the regime against the demands of many Bahraini citizens for greater equality and rights.
Perplexity defines American attitudes to the Arab world because of two other factors. One is that the citizen revolts shatter the prevalent American-Israeli view that Arabs are docile people who can be controlled and manipulated by violence. Millions of Arab men and women have shown incredible courage in facing the guns of their own regimes. The second is the widespread absence of Islamist ideologies among the rebellious Arab citizens, with most demonstrators guided by strong secular sentiments. This challenges widely held views abroad that Islamists will take over the Arab region. It is the secular, non-sectarian populist demonstrations that have proved more effective than Islamists in challenging American-backed regimes. Islamist parties will do well in the initial elections held after regime changes -- as Tunisia has already shown -- but they will then be held accountable to their entire citizenry according to the new rules of the democratic process. Americans seem unsure about whether they should support this outcome or contain it.
These and other reasons cause Americans to view the Arab world and the wider Middle East with a new dose of humility and uncertainty. One hopes this also causes them to review their own inconsistencies and double standards in applying their national values to their foreign policies. This is also an opportunity, however, for all concerned to deal with each other on the basis of reality, rather than ideological propaganda. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global