Monday, June 28, 2004

 

June 30th already?

When I was in the car listening to George Bush and Tony Blair on the radio today I seriously thought that somehow I had totally lost my sense of time and it actually was June 30th. Of course since then I've realized the error was on my part and there has been much hubbub in the media about the change of power, how much it means, the genius of George Bush (yes, I do flip to Fox News once in a while), etc etc. Of course, I do hope that the transition will eventually lead to a more free and more democratic Iraq. However, an op-ed from Daily Star executive editor Rami G. Khouri printed in the Daily Star as well as posted on the excellent bitterlemons.org website leads me to believe that even if the future of Iraq is what the US would deem "successful", the success will not radically change the way the US is viewed in the Middle East. According to Khouri, there are three major divides between Israel/US and the Arab World: culture, politics, and history. A success in Iraq might do something to soften the divide in regards to politics. But, of course, Iraq is not the only issue involved in the political disconnect.
The political dimension reflects contemporary events, going back perhaps two generations. Three principal issues are at play here in most Arab minds. The first is Washington's bias toward Israel in the Arab-Israel conflict. This enormously powerful, pervasive issue for most Arabs is not appreciated by Americans and Israelis, who thus fail to grasp how this core grievance defines almost all other dimensions of Arab interaction with the US.

The second political issue today is the US presence in Iraq, the first example of an American invasion, occupation and reconfiguration of a sovereign Arab country.

The third is the legacy of US support for autocratic and dictatorial Arab regimes when they served US interests - and the sudden American desire for reform of Arab regimes when this is seen to be the way to stop terror from the Middle East. Most Arabs see Washington's treatment of Arab regimes as transparently expedient and hypocritically self-serving, while Americans may see their foreign policy in the Middle East as rationally conducive to US national interests.

The combination of these three political issues alone creates a perception and communication gap between Arabs and Americans so wide that it distorts rational discussion of almost every other legitimate issue, such as political reform, women's rights, education, or economic liberalization.
So here we have the possibility of a closing of one part of this political gap, the US occupation of Iraq, without doing much about the other issues in the region. Indeed, the inaction on other fronts is working against the US in the region. The culural divide seems to be growing larger and larger (see the attacks on Islam I've described in earlier posts) and the history exists whether we'd like it to or not. Khouri concludes:
These three primary factors - culture, politics and history - are not only major deterrents to foreign understanding of Arab perspectives; they are also cumulatively becoming more intense, thus pushing the dynamic of disagreement among Arabs, Americans and Israelis to one of active warfare, invasion, occupation, regime change, resistance and terror against civilians.
I think it's a bit early to celebrate a success in Iraq, and even if a successful Iraq emerges (really in spite of the US role, rather than because of it), the overwhelming trend indicates that the US had better get to work on some of these other issues. Truly, as the title of Khouri's op-ed suggests, the US and Israel do misunderstand the Arab world.

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