Behind a widening US-Arab clash

US stature in Middle East is eroding, resulting in increasingly open attacks against American targets.

Two years into the war on terrorism, the US and the Arab world are as estranged as ever, and appear to be drifting further and further apart.

The situation may not yet be the "clash of civilizations" foreseen by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington in a now-famous 1993 journal article. But on both sides, opinions seem to be hardening, while conflict spreads to new fronts:

• In Gaza, Palestinian militants targeted Americans for the first time in their three-year uprising with this week's fatal attack on a US diplomatic convoy.

• In Washington, the House Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a measure that calls for economic sanctions against Syria until the White House certifies that Damascus no longer supports terrorists.

• Throughout the Middle East, Arab publics increasingly see the US presence in Iraq as one step short of colonial.

The relationship may only get worse, if a front-page editorial in Lebanon's main daily paper, As-Safir, accurately reflects the region's mood.

"One does not reveal a secret by saying many Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims kill an American every day in their dreams," said As-Safir following the Gaza attack. "The United States is responsible for massive catastrophes that have befallen this region and its people...."

Not all this week's news about the Middle East was bad, from the White House point of view. On Thursday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution meant to attract international aid for Iraq and put it on a road leading to independence.

Among those nations voting for the measure was Syria, the lone Arab country currently on the Council. But in general the US stature in the region seems very different today than even a few months ago, when a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinians was taking hold, and resistance to US troops in Iraq had yet to blossom.

Back in the spring US sponsorship of the road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace won it some points in Arab capitals. Washington seemed to have a strategic plan driving its overall diplomatic approach to the Middle East, according to some experts.

Since then a spiral of violence has all but ended "road map" progress, and White House officials have become increasingly preoccupied with simply holding on and making short-term progress in Iraq.

"If there was ever a plan to recover lost moral authority in the region, there is no such plan now ... Their approach is very tactical, not strategic," says Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here.

Others emphasize that the Bush administration approach to the Middle East now seems to reflect its general world view, which is that the world is a dangerous place filled with bad people, and that the United States should be willing to exercise its power - unilaterally if necessary - to counter the bad people's influence. This power-based approach has in fact revolutionized US foreign policy, argue scholars Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay in a new book "America Unbound."

"George Bush believes that the United States is a uniquely just power and that everybody in the world agrees that it is so. He believes we are 'good people,' to use his favorite phrase," said Mr. Daalder, a Brookings Institution fellow, at a recent symposium on foreign policy.

But such an approach tends to be less sensitive to the regards of allies and foes alike. And insensitivity is what many Middle Easterners see in the US today, at the least. As a Pew Global Attitudes survey released earlier this year puts it: "The bottom has fallen out of Arab and Muslim support for the United States."

This erosion has been caused more by specific Bush administration moves than by longstanding US policies, such as its support for Israel, say some scholars.

For instance, US threats against Iran and Syria play into the perception that what the US really wants is regional hegemony. Meanwhile, Arabs increasingly believe that the US is not serious in its complaints about such Israeli moves as its construction of a security fence in the occupied territories.

Recent reports that Israel has modified American-supplied cruise missiles to carry nuclear weapons on submarines have only exacerbated this feeling. "There's the appearance of a double standard undermining US credibility in the region," says a Saudi Arabian government official.

Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report.

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