Opinion : Loving to Hate America in the Arab World


If countries were school children, America would be the very rich kid who tries his best to have everyone like him. Every time someone needs money, this kid lends it to them for no more than a promise to like him and maybe occasionally even listen to him. Yet somehow, no matter how he behaves, other kids don’t really like the rich kid–they may smile when they need something from him, but they snicker behind his back, make fun of him, envy him and blame him for whatever comes to mind.

In Egypt, we therefore see perhaps only one thing that all the different opposing groups–Islamists, secularists, Mubarak regime loyalists, liberals, conservatives and Leftists, to name a few–agree on: It’s the fault of the United States. Mubarak removed from power? That’s Washington’s doing. Morsi and the Islamists take power and then refuse to share it? America again. Popular demonstrations against Morsi and a military coup? You guessed it–America.

The Obama administration seems to be just trying to sincerely support democracy. Nothing else could really explain how Washington turned on Mubarak, who had been a loyal and useful ally to the United States, when the Arab Spring protests erupted in Egypt. True to their principles, the Americans then supported Morsi and his administration when he won the elections in Egypt. They expressed alarm as Morsi failed to share power and appeared to bypass constitutional and legal limits on his authority. Still trying to stay true to their principles, they then criticized the military intervention that ended Morsi’s reign, but refused to completely turn against the new regime there either.

In return, the Americans managed to alienate just about every political actor in Egypt. The democratic process rationale still seems lost on much of the Arab world. Instead, actors are judged according to their allegiances rather than their commitment to a certain kind of political process no matter whom it benefits. The foreign policy of the likes of Russia is much easier to grasp in such a political world: The Russians back Assad in Syria, no matter what evil he commits while trying to maintain power.  If you too are loyal to the Assad regime, then you like Russian policy. So while the Russians definitely made some enemies by backing Assad, they at least kept some friends.

  The Obama administration seems to be just trying to sincerely support democracy. Nothing else could really explain how Washington turned on Mubarak, who had been a loyal and useful ally to the United States, when the Arab Spring protests erupted in Egypt.

It’s not clear what the United States government could do to mitigate its public relations problem in the Arab world. Returning to a policy of simply supporting its friends, no matter how unsavory, would open them up to more accusations of hypocrisy. They would be adopting the Russian policy while still attempting to clothe themselves in the language of democracy and human rights. Many observers argue that if America could just broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, much of its problems in the Arab world would recede. Justice for the Palestinians would soothe the angry identity politics behind many Arabs’ resentment of the American government. For this reason, Secretary of State Kerry’s latest efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the bargaining table are welcome and very much needed.

I’m not sure how much an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would really help things for America in the Arab world, however. To begin with, the Arab world and much of its resentment towards America is much more complicated and multi-faceted than the Palestine issue. Even if the conflict in Palestine somehow receded from the political map, other issues would remain. Leftists would still see America as the head of imperialism and neo-colonialism in the world. Islamists would still loathe America, since much of their political raison d’être remains centered on a cultural war wherein they must protect Muslim societies from Western penetration and perversion. Right wing Arab nationalists would still resent American influence that compromises their sovereignty and honor. Average people would still blame America (or its government, at least – many average Arabs like American people) for complex problems that plague them.

Finally, it seems hard to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could ever really see a negotiated solution that most Arabs would view as just or fair to the Palestinians, especially given how much they demonize Israel. No negotiated settlement within the realm of the possible would allow more than a tiny fraction of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in pre-1967 Israel, for instance. So America would get blamed for that failure as well–that is, for forcing a “sell out” and an unjust political settlement upon the Palestinians.

In the end, no matter what the rich kid does, some people just will not like him. The best he could hope for is not to make them hate him too much more. In the process, he might also be more careful about abandoning the few friends he does have. There are, in fact, several groups in the Middle East who have proven quite reliable to the rich kid, so much so that he doesn’t seem to appreciate their friendship as much as other friendships he can’t truly have.

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).