Winning The Hearts and Minds

The success of military strikes against the terrorists in Afghanistan will be essential to prevent future massacres like those in Kenya, Tanzania, and the United States. In the long term, however, terrorism can only be eradicated if the United States and its Western allies are viewed as fair brokers and undeserving of the hatred in the hearts of so many in the region.

This fight against hatred will require not only adjustments in Western policy, but also changes in underlying conditions and attitudes in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. This requires some changes in American policy, but much depends on the willingness of leaders in the region to alter policies that foster unjustified hatred of the West. There is a tremendous range of emotions towards the U.S. in the Middle East. What is important is which sentiments are critical and why, and what can be done to change them.

Should we care if we are hated? From maintaining support for current actions in Afghanistan to stopping the sources of terrorism elsewhere to gaining support for actions against tyrants like Saddam Hussein, the U.S. needs the support of people in the region. To be effective, the U.S. must be seen as fair and earnest in its desire to help.

The sentiments lobbed into the term “hatred” take on many forms. First, there is resentment towards U.S. influence in the Middle East not unlike that found elsewhere in the world. The U.S. is the dominant actor on the world stage and that will always engender resentment. Nearly impossible to eliminate, this is fortunately not serious.
More significant is resentment of American support for regimes that are non-representative at best and brutal at worst. Given the fragility of Israel?s existence and the importance of a continued flow of oil from the region, the U.S. continued the European policy of valuing stability above all else in setting policy priorities. The lack of a democratic tradition and civil liberties in much of the region makes reform a tricky proposition. An attempt to pressure monarchies and dictatorships to adopt democratic reforms risks alienating regimes in the area. Also, some interpretations of Islam are fundamentally opposed to many elements of reform, especially vis-…-vis women?s rights. These political and cultural obstacles to change and the danger of fragile new democracies collapsing into something worse than the status quo have led to a policy of supporting the existing regimes.

Such a policy is vulnerable to claims of hypocrisy. The U.S. preaches freedom and democracy in Europe while countenancing oppression for Arabs. This is fair to a point. But many do not consider the odds of a better regime following if the U.S. withdraws support for the government of, say, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Will the people be better off? Is it the responsibility of the U.S. to dictate democracy when our friends in Europe and Asia are happy to do business with far more sinister regimes such as Iraq? Hypocrisy is unavoidable in foreign policy, but that does not render us immune to its consequences of resentment and weakened moral authority.

In no issue are Arab charges of hypocrisy louder than in U.S. policy towards Israel. Ever since the 1960?s, when sponsorship of Israel passed from French to American hands, Israel?s actions have progressively been viewed as those of America by extension. Israel?s existence has indeed been threatened and the U.S. has come to view unconditional support as the right thing to do. But the Israeli settlement of Palestinian areas in recent years has changed the dynamic dramatically. This has brought far greater tension to an improving situation, spawning attacks by militant Palestinians and reprisals by Israeli security forces. Moderates on both sides have succeeded in calming nerves, but radicals of each group have seen in conflict a way to further their goals.

This is complex beyond description and there are no easy solutions. But what is certain is that the Arab world sees Palestinians – some armed and some not – being killed by American missiles fired from American aircraft by an Israeli government massively funded by American taxpayers. Justified or not, these attacks are seen as American as much as Israeli. Until the U.S. puts pressure on Israeli leaders to moderate their responses, it will be seen by Arabs as anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim. This is the largest source of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. Its persistence precludes peace.

Finally, there is the real thing – outright, unconditional hatred of America evidenced most strongly by Osama bin Laden. This is the most dangerous sentiment, capable of driving people to extreme actions. Essentially incurable, it is, however, preventable.
How? Economic deprivation and political oppression are to blame, but something more insidious is taking place. Just as some Americans convince their children that the U.S. government is their enemy, there are schools in the Muslim world that teach hatred of Christians, Jews and the West in general. Young children are not taught that U.S. soldiers fought against Christians to protect Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Rather, many are taught from an early age to hate America and view it as the enemy of Islam. Even mainstream media propagate wild conspiracy theories claiming Israelis or Americans plotted September 11 attacks to breed hatred against Muslims.

If this isn?t shocking enough, those conducting this brainwashing are supported by governments friendly to the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia. Because these extremists desire their downfall, the Saudis think they can appease fanatics in their own country by supporting those elsewhere. They take heat off themselves by allowing anger to be vented against the West, ignoring the fact that they are viewed as pawns of the West. They feed the monster that will eventually consume them.

The picture here looks rather bleak because it is. The people of the Middle East have suffered for generations at the hands of outsiders and their own people. The prospects for democratic reform are few, but there are signs of hope in countries like Bahrain and Jordan and such progress must be encouraged and supported, regardless of the countries? oil reserves. Meanwhile, America must make every effort to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, or expect more days like September 11.

There are many Muslims who hate the U.S. for its support of Israel or simply for what it stands for, but far more simply resent its hypocrisy or influence and do not wish Americans harm. Distinguishing these from each other will help us determine what we can and cannot influence. The challenge here is immense and much is beyond our control. But these efforts are as crucial as the current attacks on terrorists, for they determine whether there will be more recruits ready to take their place.