Posted on February 23, 1998 in Washington Watch

There are several flaws that can be noted in the current U.S. policy debate on Iraq. The most serious problem is the failure of most U.S. policy makers to understand Iraq (or any other Arab country, for that matter) in the context of the broader Arab world.

I have, during the past few weeks, been engaged in a number of political debates and discussion at various Washington based policy institutions and on CNN and other national television networks. My opponents in these various debates have been Senators, or current or past Administration officials. For the most part (there were some exceptions) these individuals knew very little about Iraq as a country and even less about the broader Arab world. In fact, some of these had only discovered they were “Iraq experts” in the midst of either the current crisis or the last Gulf War.

As an example, I recall an incident during the 1991 conflict. I was at NBC-TV to participate in a televised discussion on Saudi Arabia. My partner in this program was a professor at Georgetown University. He was described as a “Middle East expert.” During our conversations I learned that not only had he never been to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, he had never visited any Arab country. He assured me however, that he had studied Arab policies in Tel Aviv.

This is not at all an exceptional occurrence. While a few “Arabists” still remain in government, increasingly Middle East policy is being made and the Middle East policy debate is being conducted by experts who have no direct experience with Arab countries, Arab people or Arab history before attaining their government positions. These are “experts” for whom history began in 1948, who never hard of the McMahon-Hussein Agreement, who couldn’t name a country with a Shiia population other than Iran, who have no understanding of why or how Arabs in one state are affected by the circumstances of Arabs in another, who don’t know that there is a “Kurdish question,” who have not studied Islam–but who shape policy based on what they’ve learned in the last crisis.

What happens when “experts” become “expert” only in a crisis is that their understanding is limited to the present and their knowledge has no context. As a result, their analysis is all to often flawed. Many of the individuals I debated during the past few weeks (former Reagan and Bush Administration officials) could not understand why other Arabs would care, in any significant way, about the fate of the Iraqi people.

In the thinking of most policy makers, Iraq is discussed as if it existed in a vacuum, without any history before Saddam Hussein and without any connections to Arab and Islamic history. Said one of these analysts (a former Bush Administration official) “we can deal with Iraq like we dealt with Afghanistan” or, proposed a former Reaganite, “just like we organized the democratic opposition in the Philippines and Nicaragua, we can organize an external opposition to overthrow Saddam.”

Clearly the desire to end the rule of the regime in Baghdad is commendable, but if the people planning it, see parallels with Afghanistan, Nicaragua or the Philippines it is no wonder why the effort has failed so miserably.

Some in the Arab world and the Arab American community point to the preponderance of American Jews in most of the key positions shaping Middle East policy. The complaint, of course, is that there is a gross imbalance in the composition of the overall policy team and, with that, a feared lack of sensitivity to Arab concerns and an understanding of the Arab reality. But this problem is more widespread than the government, it prevails in the “think-tanks” as well. In fact four of the major establishment foreign policy “think-tanks” have Middle East programs all headed by American Jews. This leads to further skewing of the Middle East policy debate. When the media wants to discuss the issues of the region they go either to the government, to former government officials or to the think tanks–they are the “experts”. Arab Americans, on the other hand, are all too frequently viewed as mere partisans or advocates.

But the real problem is deeper than the exclusion of Arab Americans from government posts, the dominance of the Jewish community, or even the demise of the “Arabists” and the traditional foreign policy establishment.

At the root of the distortion in the U.S. Middle East foreign policy debate is the fact that our policy in that region is shaped more by domestic electoral political considerations (votes and donors) than by a long-term assessment of U.S. interests and how best to protect them. This is why I continue to believe it is vital for Arab Americans to organize and mobilize in U.S. politics. As we do, we will not only be in a better position to help ourselves but to help save lives in the Arab world and to help to save our country form flawed policy options and actions that are detrimental to our interests and our allies.

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