Obama's opportunity in the Middle East
To strengthen ties, he should not ask 'Why do they hate us?' but 'Why don't they believe us?'
Sen. Barack Obama is visiting with leaders in Europe and the Middle East this week to "deepen important relationships and exchange views with nations vital to the country's national security," said a spokeswoman. In short, Senator Obama will seek to repair friendships that have frayed in the past seven years.Skip to next paragraph
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It won't be easy, especially in the Middle East, where a thick coat of skepticism and cynicism has dulled the reflection of American aspirations.
I saw this firsthand in May, when President Bush spoke to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He preached the virtues of democratic reform to an audience of English-speaking, pro-Western businesses; NGOs; and political leaders. The effect? More grating than gratitude.
If Obama seriously aspires to the title Leader of the Free World, he must speak with a different tone. But more important, perhaps, he must listen for a different answer.
The prevailing question Americans have been asking since 9/11 – "Why do they hate us?" – is the wrong one. The better question is, "Why don't they believe us?"
The good news is that the next president – whether Obama or Senator McCain – won't be speaking from beyond a yawning philosophical divide. When he repeats America's familiar mantra of freedom, democracy, and fighting terrorism, he will be preaching to the choir.
The bad news is that he should expect cynicism; Arab leaders claim that our actions do not live up to our rhetoric. At the WEF I attended, they pointed to our use of the war on terror as an excuse to curtail civil rights and to squelch democracy in the Arab world. When Mr. Bush asserted, "Terrorist organizations … create chaos and take innocent lives in an effort to stop democracy from taking root," Arabs wondered aloud who had created chaos; who was visiting death and violence upon the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
To improve relations with the Arab world, Obama should strike a markedly different tone from Bush, who came across the WEF participants as disingenuous, biased, and arrogant.
Just days before he addressed the WEF, Bush spoke to the Israeli Knesset and extolled democracy as "the only way to guarantee the God-given rights of all people." He got a standing ovation. Then, at the WEF, he told the mostly Arab audience that Middle Eastern politics too often consists of "one leader in power and the opposition in jail." Some participants, having seen the text in advance, walked out.
Bush's remark wasn't inaccurate. But it was incomplete and, to the audience, hypocritical.