The Arabs' worst enemy: themselves

Progress in the Arab world will come from self-reflection, not blaming Israel.

News reports that Iraq is increasingly turning away from Washington and toward Iran for advice on forming a new government are disheartening. They tend to confirm earlier warnings that Tehran would be the major beneficiary after the US invasion of Iraq.

Couple that with a Brookings Institution poll showing that Arab optimism about US policy in the Middle East has dropped from 51 percent to only 16 percent, and it reminds us that the first decade of the 21st century has been a pretty sorry one for American interests in the region.

One might have at least expected some applause and gratitude from the Arab street after President Obama ordered an end to US combat operations in Muslim Iraq.

Instead, it was met with sullen silence. An Arab journalist friend explained, “Arabs are always angry. They always look for the bad and then harp on it.”

Misperceptions and mental rigidity

Much of the responsibility for what has gone wrong in the past decade lies as much with misperceptions and mental rigidity on the Arab street as with US policy failings.

A small vignette is illustrative. First recall the Muslim world’s early infatuation with Barack Obama. After all, his middle name is Hussein, the same as the prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

Recently a group of Arab journalists was at the White House when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was speaking. The US president had a tiny, wireless receiver in his ear, giving Obama an instant, simultaneous translation of Mr. Mubarak’s remarks. The Arab journalists became quite excited, mistakenly believing Obama really understood Arabic because he was nodding his head. They wanted to believe he was one of them.

In a small way, the incident illustrates how unrealistic are Arab perceptions of the world, and of the United States and its president.

When educated Arabs grasp at such flimsy straws, we should recognize a cultural mind-set that helps explain why the US effort to democratize, reshape, and modernize the Arab Middle East by occupying and nation-building in Iraq faltered miserably.

Eight months after elections in Iraq, politicians in Baghdad still haven’t formed a government, as rival sectarian groups fear losing power. Prominent Iraqi Arabs have proved themselves little more than dithering and incompetent complainers, neither proactive nor positive even when it is in their own interest.

The Arab blame game

Bernard Lewis, the renowned Princeton scholar of Islam, has called attention to the Arab tendency to play “the blame game.”

He notes Arabs traditionally blamed the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks, the colonial powers, and now the Jews and the Americans for everything that has gone awry in their once proud and accomplished history.

When I question Arabs about this, I find they generally hide behind the mantra, “If only we were better Muslims and followed the Quran, we would do better.” But that becomes a self-set mental trap, excusing any original thought about the need to determine their own destiny.

Last year’s United Nations Arab Human Development Report suggested the Arab peoples tend to place too much trust in “institutions rooted in primordial loyalties, notably kinship, clanism and religion.” Overcoming them, the report concluded, “is an essential condition for strengthening human security in the Arab countries.”

Obsession with Israel

So is overcoming the Arab obsession with Israel – the belief that the Jewish state is the root cause of Arab troubles.

Arabs lament that billions in US aid give the Israeli military an insurmountable advantage. But they disingenuously forget that American dollars also keep the lights on – and governments running – in a host of Arab and Muslim lands, from Egypt and Jordan to Pakistan and the Palestinian territories.

On a recent flight, my seatmate was a bright Kuwaiti graduate student named Ammar Bahman. I posed this question to him: “If Israel were erased completely from the map, would Arabs resolve their own difficulties?”

“No,” he said. “They will always fight among themselves for money and power. They are very corrupt.”

His honesty was refreshing. He seemed to understand that too often Arabs are their own worst enemy – and that until this changes, little else will change.

Esteemed Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri caught the essence of the Arab dilemma when he cited a kind of cultural schizophrenia he described as “a strange combination of self-assertion and reliance on foreign actors.”

While Arabs indulge in rage and rhetoric, the hard-nosed Iranians – who are Persians, not Arabs – are building a sphere of influence from Kabul to the Mediterranean. With credibility, Iranian leaders now proclaim themselves the new saviors of the Islamic Middle East, committed to restoring dignity and justice to the Arab world under the rubric of a new Persian empire.

The historic irony is inescapable, and it is a clear consequence of growing Iranian power abhorring an Arab vacuum.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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