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.

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.

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!

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.

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