Posted on July 08, 2002 in Washington Watch

I am writing on my return from an eight-day visit to the Arab world. It was a difficult time to be in the region. President George W. Bush’s strange and disturbing speech of June 24 had been received like a blow to the system. As a result, every political conversation was punctuated with frustration and, in many cases, fury.

Arab moderates, in particular, feel betrayed, and with good reason. For more than a decade now, especially since the end of the Gulf War, they have ceded to the United States the role of exclusive Middle East peacemaker. Wanting desperately to put the Arab-Israeli conflict to rest, so as to enable the region to move forward politically and economically, they embraced the promise of Madrid and the U.S. role as “honest broker.” When, in the 1990s peace efforts faltered due to Israeli resistance, Arabs looked to the United States as a restraining force. At times, the United States delivered. It was U.S. pressure that undid Shamir in 1992 and Netanyahu in 1996.

With the election of Sharon and the worsening of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, Arabs remained convinced that, at the appropriate time, the U.S. would apply the needed restraint and restore peace-making efforts. This was especially true in recent months as the situation spun out of control. While Arabs criticized President Bush’s April 4th speech, they found some hope in his call for an “immediate” pullback. When Sharon refused and Bush responded by calling him a “man of peace” Arab leaders were troubled. Many of them traveled to the United States seeking to press the Administration back to a more balanced peace-making role. They waited for the “big speech,” hoping to see in it the fruits of their labor.

In this context, the Bush speech was a slap in the face. Whatever its origins in U.S. domestic policies and its overall lack of coherence, what the speech did clearly establish was the harsh reality that the U.S. was not going to act to stop Sharon’s near obsessive desire to destroy the Palestinian Authority.

Another deeply troubling aspect of the speech was its rudely dismissive treatment of Palestinian aspirations for democracy. By ignoring the real Palestinian situation on the ground; a destroyed economy; a devastated infrastructure, a near complete military reoccupation, and, with all of this, heightened anger and despair–the call for a “multi-party democracy” came off more like a cruel taunt than a promise.

For much of the last century the U.S. stood before the world as a beacon of democracy and self-determination. Now, for many in the Arab world, the beacon has been all but extinguished.

I, too, have been deeply affected, and not only by the Israeli onslaught, the U.S.’s failure to provide leadership and the Arab reaction to this distressing situation. I am, after all, an Arab American. For 30 years now I have been working full-time on these issues and traveling to the Middle East. I have strong family ties and deeply rooted friendships in all parts of the Arab world. The despair and anger I encounter concerns me. Because I am an American, I am also deeply troubled by the disaffection I see toward my country.

Let me be brutally blunt. We are, all of us, in a hell of a mess. Those of us who care both about the U.S.-Arab relationship and providing all of our people with a better future based on international cooperation, economic progress and an expansion of rights and opportunity, need to take a long hard look at where we are and where we need to go.

If the post-September 11 world exposed anything to us all, it was the profound gap in understanding that exists between the United States and the Arab world, and the dangers that extremist ideologies pose to both worlds. Both of our worlds are confronted by forces that seek to provoke a clash of “civilizations.” You have your extremists and fundamentalists and we have ours. Both feed off of each other and reinforce each other. If left unchecked, the corrosive force they represent will only further erode the structure of relationships that have shaped our world. In the face of the challenge these forces pose, a collective effort must be made to confront them.

For our part, in the United States, we must challenge the dangerous drift of U.S. foreign policy toward unilateralism and confrontation. We must build a broadly based coalition of those who will be most affected by the world the ideologues seek to create. The elements of such a coalition include: racial and ethnic communities, liberal religious groups, democrats and civil libertarians and the U.S. business community that needs international cooperation not confrontation in order to expand and prosper. We must engage in a struggle to restore diplomacy to international relations and to secure democracy and political rights in domestic affairs.

Arabs too must face this challenge. It is no longer possible to wait for an external agent of change. Extremist ideologies must be confronted and exposed as bankrupt and incapable of providing real political solutions. Basing themselves on anger and despair they provide nothing but a future based on conflict. Arab society must be pressed from within to make more progress toward openness and opportunity.

And we, both of us, must engage each other for mutual reinforcement. As the extremists feed off of each other for reinforcement of their vision of a clash of civilizations, Arab and American moderates must work together to change the current dynamic that is leading us toward confrontation.

We need more efforts like the Baker Institute-sponsored U.S.-Syrian dialogue and the promised GCC and Arab League proposed public information campaign. But what we do not need is an American television channel talking at the Arabs, or an Arab television channel talking at the Americans. What we need is a sustained campaign where we talk to each other and listen to learn from each other. Americans, for example, need to meet and get to know Arabs as they really are. The conversations I had during my recent visit with anguished Arab moderates need to be heard by hundreds of thousands of Americans. We need more, not less interaction.

This is so important because, in fact, most Americans do not know Arabs, have never had conversations with them and, therefore, do not know their concerns and their aspirations.

No doubt, the current state of affairs is a mess. But there is a way forward. It is to engage and to work for change within our societies and between our two worlds. It will not be easy. But to surrender to despair and cynicism will only allow the extremists to win.

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