US moves inflame Arab moderates
President Bush's public support of Israel has alienated even some Arabs who favor democratization.
BEIRUT, LEBANON — In more peaceful times, the United States would be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic friend in the Arab world than Munir Shammaa.
A distinguished doctor and university professor, the Lebanese Christian says he learned "the American principles of fair play, intellectual integrity, courage, and the importance of human rights" while studying at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and practicing medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1950s.
But these are far from peaceful times in the Middle East. And Mr. Shammaa says he finds his longstanding faith in the US being tested by Washington's policies toward the Arab world. So much so, that he recently was moved to write an open letter to the American people, a cathartic outburst of his frustrations.
"Throughout my life I have pushed my personal friends and family as well as my students and peers to follow the principles I was taught at your academic institutions," Shammaa writes. "In fact, at one time in my life, I was as much an American as a Lebanese. Now I watch helplessly as those principles, that were so much part of me, are bulldozed mercilessly by the present administration."
The motivation for writing the letter, currently unpublished, he says, was the "flagrant one-sidedness of the United States toward Palestine and Iraq."
Shammaa is not alone. While the rhetoric of extremists - Muslims, Christians, and Jews - tends to capture headlines in the West, many Arabs are broadly sympathetic to the Bush administration's stated goal of helping usher in democratic reforms to the Middle East. But the continued US support for the Israeli government has increasingly alienated those reformers who should be staunch allies of the US, undermining Washington's efforts to win over a skeptical Arab public.
"Israel is the big Achilles heel of those like me and those in the US administration who speak of greater democracy [in the Middle East]," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst.
Furthermore, the depth of Arab anger over the Bush administration's policies toward Israel and the Palestinians is affecting on efforts to stabilize Iraq. Israel's assassination last month of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, resonated throughout Iraq with Sunni insurgents naming a group after the slain cleric, and the maverick Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr declaring his followers "the striking arm" in Iraq of Hamas.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, referred to that link last week, saying his efforts to forge a new Iraqi government were hindered by Israel's "poison in the region" of "domination and the suffering of the Palestinians."
Despite Arab anger over Iraq, it is the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians that lies at the root of anti-American sentiment in the region.
The Arab world reacted with astonishment, despair, and rage when President Bush recently approved Israel retaining some West Bank settlements and rejected the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel. The announcement, coming after a meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was a reversal of longstanding US policy of opposing Israel's settlement building on occupied Arab territory.
In truth, Mr. Bush was merely saying in public what many Arabs reluctantly concede in private. In past negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it was generally accepted that the 3.2 million Palestinian refugees, now living in the occupied territories, Lebanon, and Jordan, would not return to Israel. At the same time, the Palestinians agreed to Israel keeping larger West Bank settlements in exchange for additional territory attached to the future Palestinian state.
Yet the fact that Bush made it a public declaration inflamed Arab passions.
"It was so offensive, so blatant, sitting there in the White House with Sharon and saying this is how it's going to be," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian political analyst and executive editor of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star newspaper. "People were incredibly offended, shocked, and angered by that."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak observed last week that "there is a hatred of the Americans like never before in the region. People have a feeling of injustice," he told the French daily Le Monde. "What's more, they see Sharon acting as he pleases, without the Americans saying anything."
Mr. Khouri says that Arab resentment toward US Mideast policy extends beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"There's a broad pattern of inconsistencies, double standards, contradictions, and an arrogance in the American style that really upsets people throughout the region and makes it increasingly difficult for anybody to take the Americans seriously or to work with them," Mr. Khouri says.
If Arab attitudes toward the US are to change, then Washington will "have to be more consistent, less contradictory, more reliable," he says. "If they say there are going to promote democracy, then they should promote democracy and not support [Arab] autocrats. They should order people around less and consult people more. They need to work on the substance and the style of their diplomacy and their involvement in this region."
Otherwise, the US risks losing the goodwill of moderates like Shammaa.
"I close this letter with one sole plea," Mr Shammaa concludes. "Do not force me, and others like me, who were educated and brought up by our American peers in the real heyday of American principles and democracy, to now classify those same people as the enemy camp. This pains me greatly, both as a Christian and an Arab, particularly after having so long believed and practiced the principles you taught me, and now seeing a parody of these very same beliefs dragged down into the mud of Iraq and the [Palestinian] occupied territories."