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?'
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In 2006 the US insisted on elections in the Palestinian territories, then refused to accept the outcome when Hamas, the Islamic militant group, emerged with a surprising, but undisputed, victory. Audience members also noted how many of these "one leader in power and the opposition in jail" autocracies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, to name three – enjoy unwavering US political, military, and economic support!Skip to next paragraph
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The next president should also not dismiss the reforms and significant progress already taking place. "We are improving at a steady, stable pace," Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly's editor told me at the WEF. He contended that press and political freedom had increased substantially in the past decade and stressed, "We do not need pressure from outside to reform."
During his travels to the Middle East Obama must walk a fine line on Iran, treading between Israel's hawks and Arabs' cautious pragmatists. High-ranking officials at the WEF especially disapproved of Bush's strategy of isolation.
Finally, Obama must bear in mind something so obvious that it often goes unrecognized: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the massive cloud that overshadows all life in the Middle East.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit bluntly declared, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of everything. Everything bad that happens in the region is a direct result of this issue." And nearly all Arabs see the US as rubbing salt in the wound with its consistent pro-Israel bias.
To Bush's statement that "freedom is a universal right – the Almighty's gift to every man, woman, and child," officials asked me wryly whether this freedom extended to Palestinians as well. Did they not deserve to be free from oppression and occupation? How can the US in good conscience claim to support freedom and human rights, while uncritically backing a government that deprives millions of Palestinians of those rights?
Tough talk from the crowd, indeed, but let's not forget these are not reactions from our foes in the region but from our closest allies. This disparity between US rhetoric and US policies on the ground is alienating the base of Arab moderates we so desperately need.
If the next president also emphasizes the buzzwords of democracy, freedom, and human rights while supporting undemocratic regimes or essentially nullifying unfavorable elections, he, too, will be greeted with aversion.
Perhaps it's time to ensure that our words match our deeds. Do Americans care more about stability and pro-US regimes, or democracy and freedom? If the former, we should not pretend otherwise. It is better to be accused of realist pragmatism than hypocrisy.
But if we believe that democracy and freedom are absolute American values, we should insist upon their consistent application. If we can't convince even our friends of our commitment to these values, how could we possibly convince them to join with us to defeat our enemies?
Janessa Gans teaches political science at Principia College, and is the founder and executive director of the Euphrates Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to improving relations between the Middle East and the West.