Monday, October 29, 2001

Arabs, Anger, and America - The sources of Mideast aversion.

Beirut -- Recently, a foreign correspondent in Beirut asked the opinion-page editor of one of Lebanon's leading newspapers about the tenor of the essays he was receiving. The editor's response was revealing: "Most writers feel they have to be opposed to the United States, but in this case they are equally uncomfortable siding with Osama bin Laden."

Therein lies a recurring dilemma of Arab intellectuals, and indeed of many Arabs: How does one escape from siding with the unsavory enemies of the U.S. while avoiding landing in the U.S. camp? Or, how does one oppose the U.S. while not backing its more unpleasant antagonists? The fact is that America has long been a favorite enemy in the Middle East, even if the usual claim is that this loathing is directed at "the U.S. government, not the American people."

Of course, there are many Arab writers and thinkers who have differing views of the U.S. and its role in the world. But it is fair to say that intellectual credibility in the Arab world (as in many Western countries) requires adopting an outlook that is, at least, systematically critical of the U.S. This constraint has frequently obstructed sensible thought. The result has in some cases been a predicament reminiscent of that of Communist intellectuals in the 1930s, who accepted the diktats of the Comintern, even when they contradicted their better judgment.

It may be useful to examine the sources of this aversion, before asking a question that has been long avoided: Why, in seeking a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (without doubt the main bone of contention between the Arab states and the U.S.), have Arab elites agreed to operate through Washington? In other words why, in the defining event of the contemporary Middle East, have many Arabs been so dependent on a power they cannot quite bring themselves to like?

Generally speaking, Arab intellectuals and opinion-makers have been influenced by four long-term factors when censuring the U.S.: Cold War attitudes; the failure of secular regimes in the Middle East; the question of Palestine; and uneasiness with globalization. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it is almost certainly one that applies to a vast majority of those who find the U.S. objectionable.

It is remarkable how many Arab intellectuals (often though not always older ones) revive Cold War preconceptions when judging the U.S. Like their liberal counterparts in the West, these Arab intellectuals continue to cast a tolerant eye on the former "peoples' democracies" for two reasons: first, Leftist values, allegedly embodied in various postwar socialisms, are still regarded as more humane than those of free-market capitalism; second, the U.S. is still perceived as an agent of neo-colonialism, whereas the U.S.S.R., despite unremitting proof to the contrary, is remembered as a sponsor of anti-colonialism.

Anachronistic Cold War responses dovetail with another conviction of Arab elites: that all-powerful states are acceptable, if they are politically and socially just. Most problems in the Arab world -- poverty, over-population, rural migration, the absence of democracy, etc. -- appear extensive enough to require state intervention. However, it is also true that the Arabs, throughout much of their history, have been accustomed to strong government, because it is virtually the only type of political system they have experienced. That is why Arab elites have sought deliverance not by jettisoning overbearing, paternalistic states, but by reforming and democratizing them. Lebanon alone has adopted a political model that limits central state power -- a result of the country's peculiar communal composition.

The rub came when post-colonial Middle Eastern secular regimes failed to reform, democratize, or resolve pressing social and economic problems. What the Arabs received instead was a diet of traditional autocracy in modern garb. In 1954 the Lebanese-British historian Albert Hourani, whose Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age remains a classic of Middle East intellectual history, could still yearn for an Arab world that integrated the Liberal values that earlier drove European modernism. The region's failure to do so demoralized many of its intellectuals, who would accuse the U.S. -- rightly in many cases -- of favoring the intolerant regimes that oppressed them.

This led to a paradox: the Arab intellectual elite, not wanting to adopt the free-market ways of an abhorred U.S., moved to the Left. In some countries this led to communist- or socialist-inspired coups, as in Iraq, Syria or Libya. Elsewhere, regimes unilaterally adopted socialist principles, as in Egypt. The obvious foe in the wake of these Leftwards movements was the U.S.

In 1981 the Lebanese-American political scientist, Fouad Ajami, wrote The Arab Predicament, a gloomy extension of Hourani's hopeful Arabic Thought. Ajami, who is routinely disparaged by Arab intellectuals for his overt pro-Americanism, examined the failure of the Middle East's secular regimes in light of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The war was a disaster for the Arabs, and as Ajami recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, it led to an Islamic revival that alone seemed to offer a chance for success. "The secular fathers begot this strange breed of holy warriors," noted Ajami, a view undisputed by Arab Leftists. Once again America could not escape condemnation: the Islamists had no patience for its corrupt ways, while the disappointed secularists associated the U.S. with Israel, the instrument of their defeat in the 1967 war

It is after 1967 that Palestine became the paramount sticking point between the Arab world and the U.S. No issue provokes as much unanimity in a fractured Arab world as the sorry fate of the Palestinians. The U.S. stands at the center of this drama, both as culprit and vehicle for salvation. The Arabs have for decades been on solid ground morally when addressing the Palestinian problem. Proof of this is that both the U.S. and Israel have steadily moved towards recognition of Palestinian national rights, the very same ones that they refused to consider two decades ago. This progress, however, has not been sufficiently appreciated or exploited by Arab opinion-makers, who still use the term "Oslo process" pejoratively. They refuse to accept that Oslo returned Yasser Arafat to his land and legitimized Palestinian statehood.

In the past year, following the outbreak of the Intifada, the Arabs have related to the Palestinian problem almost exclusively in emotional terms. There is some justification in doing so, if only because of the imbalance in firepower -- and casualties -- between the Palestinians and Israel. The Arabs have been particularly incensed with the policies of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is believed to oppose giving up significant amounts of land to reach a settlement with the Palestinians. They are probably right in thinking so, and the U.S. has taken a great deal of time before giving this hypothesis serious consideration.

The problem is that even as the U.S. swerved on Palestinian rights -- a few weeks ago it formally endorsed a Palestinian state -- the Arab public and intellectuals continued to regard U.S. intentions suspiciously. More seriously, no Arab state picked up politically on the changes in Washington in order to corner Sharon. On the contrary, most Middle Eastern regimes continue to curry favor at home by supporting a continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, deterring U.S. efforts to mediate between the parties.

The final motivation for opposing the U.S. -- nervousness with globalization -- is complex, so defining a single Arab point of view would be inaccurate. However, the misgivings that many Arab intellectuals have toward globalization emerged naturally from the inability of Arab states to modernize adequately. In general, many Arab intellectuals perceive globalization as a byword for U.S. hegemony. In this they are influenced by leftist ideologies, by past anti-colonialist attitudes, and by a feeling that globalization is socially inequitable -- the last not altogether untrue.

On the other hand, quite a few Arab intellectuals consistently overlook the potential advantages that their countries might derive from globalization, and dismiss the rewards of genuinely free markets. The appearance of Al-Jazeera as a singular global Arab source of information has shown how shortsighted this bias may be. The appeal and reputation of the station might help reconcile Arab opinion-makers somewhat with a phenomenon that allows them, for once, to disseminate their messages worldwide.

Much must be done by both the Arab countries and the U.S. if relations are to improve. However, the Arab states in particular should develop a more confident autonomy -- free of knee-jerk anti-Americanism or unpopular subservience to the U.S. -- on specific major issues, so that the U.S. can be regarded as either friend or adversary, depending on the situation. In changing their assessments of the U.S., however, many in the Arab world will have to alter their perceptions of their own societies, since the U.S. is often a convenient scapegoat to explain domestic ills.

The place to start is Palestine. If the U.S. has been so intolerably partial on the Palestinian issue, then it's time for the Arabs to circumvent Washington. There are two options: to declare war on Israel, something few Arabs desire or expect will succeed; or to address the Israelis directly and set down realistic demands for a settlement of the Palestinian imbroglio. Palestine was always primarily an Arab-Israeli concern. There is no reason why it should not again be so. It's time for the Arab elites solve a half-century conundrum that still baffles them.

Many opinion-makers in the Arab world today find themselves in an intellectual no-man's land: neither with bin Laden nor with the U.S.; angry at U.S. behavior towards the Palestinians, but unwilling, or unable, to address Israel in a unified way. The Arabs have legitimate beefs, but the U.S. is not the source of all their problems. On the contrary, the Arab elites' obsession with America, by deflecting self-questioning and self-criticism, has become an obstacle to breaking free from the cliches that tend to pervade the Middle East. It is only beyond those cliches that the true emancipation of Arab intellect and culture awaits.

Monday, October 8, 2001

Air War - The Bush administration's efforts to censor a leading Arab TV station are dumb

Beirut - On Sunday, as the U.S and Britain began their long-awaited attack against Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden took to the airwaves. In a videotaped transmission he articulated a typically apocalyptic message, noting how his world was divided between believers and infidels. It was noticeable that he did so not on CNN, but on the Arab world's premier satellite channel, Qatar's Al-Jazeera.

It is not often that Arab leaders defend domestic media freedoms before their American interlocutors. However, that's exactly what occurred last week when the secretary of state, Colin Powell, asked the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to put a lid on Al-Jazeera because of its hostility to recent U.S. actions in the region. The emir diplomatically told Powell to mind his own business.

Powell blundered. He not only ignored America's own constitutional principles, but also underestimated the station's importance to Emir Hamad. Nevertheless, Powell was right in seeing Al-Jazeera as a serious obstacle blocking U.S. efforts to win over Arab public opinion in the fight against Bin Laden and his disciples. The station has refused to toe the official U.S. line on the "War on Terrorism." It routinely hosts angry critics of U.S. Middle East policy and it plainly sympathizes with the Taliban regime.

Al-Jazeera also happens to be the most uninhibited and freewheeling Arab news outlet around. It was established five years ago by Emir Hamad, and has never looked back. In a region where television, radio, and newspapers are usually state-owned and crushingly dreary, Al-Jazeera has been a popular breath of fresh air. The station is disliked by most Arab regimes because it invites their opposition in for interviews. Its anchors see themselves as journalists rather than as government functionaries. And its discussion panels provide rare opportunities for genuine debate.

That is what has made the station's performance in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks so disappointing. A more objective Arab voice could have helped reduce the expanding cultural rift between the West and the Muslim world over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Instead, Al-Jazeera has emerged as just another mouthpiece for Arab frustration. Though the Bush administration might benefit from listening to dissent, Al-Jazeera has had profit as well as rebellion on its mind: As the only station broadcasting from Taliban-controlled territory, its audience has soared. As a result, Al-Jazeera lately signed a lucrative agreement with CNN, granting the Atlanta-based station priority in broadcasting its footage from inside Afghanistan.

But Powell's efforts to lobby Emir Hamad exposed the worst in U.S. behavior. It was less the administration's effort to curb freedom of expression that was significant-though it certainly was-than the fact that it revealed how the U.S. feels most comfortable when dealing with Middle Eastern societies through their unaccountable despots. This has splendidly backfired on occasion, as in Iraq and Iran. However, successive administrations have continued to pursue the policy, believing that autocracy, particularly in a region awash with oil, is synonymous with predictability.

Qatar in particular has been a sporadic target of U.S. ire. In the past few years the emirate has affirmed its independence from Saudi Arabia in Gulf affairs, provoking irritation in Washington and Riyadh. Emir Hamad has also displeased the U.S. and some of its Gulf allies by staking out a role as mediator in the crisis with Iraq. On the other hand, the U.S. welcomed Qatar's efforts to develop ties with Israel several years ago -- an effort since frozen by the intifada -- which earned the emir bitter criticism in the Arab world. In this intricate ambiance, Emir Hamad has used Al-Jazeera's overt militancy as a shield protecting him from his domestic and regional antagonists.

The Bush administration would do best to adopt a different tack when dealing with Al-Jazeera. It should use the station as a means of getting its point across to an Arab public highly skeptical of whatever the U.S. does in the Middle East. It might also try to demonstrate that the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania had nothing to do with the suffering of the Palestinian people. Al-Jazeera has proven that the Arabs are not sheep when granted legitimate forums for argument and dissension. That Powell should treat them as such by trying to hush their favorite station is not only insulting, it seems to suggest that the U.S. has no serious arguments to offer in defending its actions against Osama bin Laden.