Why Americans don't understand the Middle East

I hardly ever watch network news, but I happened to stumble across this appalling report on NBC's "Rock Center" last night. In this clip, reporter Richard Engel blames this week's anti-American violence on "conspiracy theories" that Arab populations have been fed over the years by their rulers, including the idea that the United States and Israel are colluding to control the Middle East.

It's no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the "birthers?") I've heard them every time I've lectured in the region and done my best to debunk them. But by attributing Arab and Muslim anger solely to these ideas, Engel's report paints a picture of the United States (and by implication, Israel) as wholly blameless. In his telling, the U.S. has had nothing but good intentions for the past century, but the intended beneficiaries of our generosity don't get it solely because they've been misled by their leaders.

In short, Operation Cast Lead never happened, Lebanon wasn't invaded in 1982 or bombed relentlessly for a month in 2006, the United States has never turned a blind eye towards repeated human rights violations by every single one of its Middle Eastern allies, drones either don't exist or never killed an innocent victim, the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was just a little misunderstanding, and the Palestinians ought to be grateful to us for what they've been left after forty-plus years of occupation. To say this in no way absolves governments in the region for responsibility for many of their current difficulties, but Americans do themselves no favors by ignoring our own contribution to the region's ills.

In short, you want to get some idea of why most Americans have no idea why we are unpopular in the region, this example of sanitized "analysis" is illuminating, though not in the way that Engel and NBC intended.


Stephen M. Walt

Lessons of Benghazi (and beyond)

I was traveling all day yesterday and didn't have my laptop with me, so I wasn't able to comment on the tragic news from Benghazi and related violence in Cairo and elsewhere. Probably just as well: At least I didn't say anything rash, ill-considered, cynical, or shamefully exploitative. You know, like this guy did.   

Millions of pixels have already been devoted to writing about these events, and much still remains to be learned (including the precise identity and motivations of the wingnuts who put out the offensive video that provided the motivation or the pretext for these attacks). I'd also like to know more about the perpetrators, and the reasons why the different governments have responded as they have. But what we know so far suggests three lessons to me.

First, it's a reminder that almost by definition, extremists try to win support and advance their cause through outrageous actions: either via hateful rhetoric or actual violence itself. We saw this phenomenon in the Balkans and in Iraq, where the most radical elements used both harsh propaganda and overt violence to fuel paranoia and force would-be moderates to choose sides. In uncertain political moments, a few bad apples can have highly disruptive effects.

Extremists on both sides are engaged in a dangerous duet: They depend on each other for sustenance and reinforcement. The extremist views and radical violence of groups like Al Qaeda create a mirror image here, in the form of paranoid Islamophobes, whose harsh rhetoric and support for endless war against the entire Muslim world in turn gives Islamic extremists potent arguments to use in their battle to win hearts and minds. Matt Duss has a great rundown on this whole problem here. My point is that if you want to make Islamic extremism stronger, you should write a check to your favorite Islamophobe. 

Second, although it is way too soon to tell, we can hope that the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues in Libya has exactly the opposite effect of the one that their murderers intended. Instead of fueling anti-American sentiment or provoking the United States to react foolishly, this crime might well strengthen pro-American sentiment in Libya and perhaps even elsewhere. For whatever one might think of America's overall posture in the Middle East, Ambassador Stevens must now be counted among the martyrs of the broader "Arab spring," and there are some signs that a substantial number of Libyans see it that way. If so, helping marginalize such views would be a fitting memorial to his life's work.

Third, we should not lose sight of the broader context. This tragedy also reminds us of the deep hole that the United States has dug for itself in the Middle East over the past fifty years or so. Once upon a time, the United States was widely admired throughout the region, but that is decidedly not the case today.  There are reasons why anti-American extremists hate us (and it's not just our "values"), and there are also reasons why they think that attacking Americans will win them greater support. Similarly, there are reasons why governments that pay attention to public opinion are often reluctant to embrace Uncle Sam too closely. In particular, numerous surveys of public opinion show that there is considerable anger at U.S. foreign policy among the broader publics in the Arab and Islamic world, fueled by what these peoples see as indifference to Muslim lives, one-sided support for Israel, our cozy relations with assorted Middle Eastern monarchies and dictators, and our hypocritical behavior regarding human rights and nuclear weapons. To acknowledge this broader context in no way justifies the events of this week, but ignoring this broader context is a surefire recipe for responding to it in the wrong way.

Even some of the people who favored democratic change in the Middle East understood that it would be a challenge for us in the short term, because opening these systems up to greater participation would also open them up to overt expressions of anti-Americanism and create governments that were less compliant or predictable than the old authoritarian orders. But change was going to happen sooner or later, and it's not likely to be reversed for long. The legacy of the past five decades won't be removed by a couple of presidential speeches, or even by an extended tilt in the direction of "reform." It will take time, patience, forbearance, and somewhat different approach to the entire region.

So my third lesson is two-fold: it's going be bumpy for awhile, and we need to hope that more moderate forces and cooler heads have their hands on the tiller -- including in Washington, D.C. Otherwise, it's Yeats time again:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre;
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.