Friday, August 01, 2008

New view on Mideast needed

Barack Obama and John McCain must take a careful look at our foreign policy in the Middle East and prepare to make significant adjustments.

The United States has found itself in a difficult and vulnerable position. We are engaged in Iraq in a conflict that we have grown tired of yet cannot seem to exit. The end of the Saddam Hussein regime has eliminated a geographic buffer between Iran and the rest of the Arab world, altering the balance of power. Now, with the humming of military exercises, the talk of nuclear weapons programs and a so-called "Shiite Crescent," it will take a concerted effort to push back from the brink of conflict.

The U.S., the most powerful nation in the world, has found itself in this position today because Iran succeeds in one area where we continue to fail: winning Arab public opinion. Year after year, poll after poll, the Arab public ranks the U.S. and Israel as the two greatest threats facing them, while Iran lags far behind. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Shiite party Hezbollah, often associated with Iran, is the most popular leader in the Arab world. The belligerent rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toward Israel is used regularly to garner support in the Arab world.

We cannot make the mistake of thinking, however, that there is a lovefest between the Arab world and Iran. While these neighbors are certainly not natural enemies, the affinity between them stems more from American policy than any statement or action Iran takes.

Polls of the Arab world, conducted by the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, showed that an astounding 86 percent considered the issue of Palestine a top priority. This, and the past two decades of an inconsistent and ineffectual American role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, shed light on precisely why the U.S. lacks legitimacy in the region to broker a political solution in Iraq and a negotiated solution with Iran.

The U.S. insists on the prevention of a nuclear Iran, when the Arab public is well aware that the world's largest per capita nuclear arsenal is in Israel. Further, the American position has largely been to not negotiate with Iran before it suspends its nuclear program. Yet the U.S. pushes the Palestinian Authority to negotiate while Israel continues settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. When the U.S. government acquiesces to the Israeli claim that settlement expansion is an outcome of natural growth, Palestinians in towns such as Qalqilya, which is completely encircled by a towering separation wall and subjected to unnatural contraction, look on with despair.

Unfortunately, the Arab world has become all too accustomed to policies it sees as hypocritical.

A sound and evenhanded policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most direct and efficient way to gain the necessary political leverage the U.S. is sorely missing. This means being an actively engaged partner, committed to a just solution for Israelis and Palestinians, and being willing to enforce commitments and human rights equally. This also means an end to occupation, a just solution for the refugee issue and an end of violence on all sides.

The end of the Cold War left a vacuum of leadership in the Middle East that is yet to be filled. While the Arab public is hungry for American leadership and reform, it is torn over whether to follow the United States. Understanding this dynamic, and working toward a genuine and just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, puts us far closer to filling the void. If ignored again, we face the continued risk of competing for legitimacy with radicalism.

Our presidential candidates may frequently travel to the Middle East but it would behoove them, and us, to take a closer look at the aspirations of Middle Easterners.

Yousef Munayyer is a special assistant to the president at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

1 comment:

Violet said...

Is there such thing as an Arab world? If some claim there is. Wouldn’t we be much powerful by now? Isn't that the whole issue with terrorist groups? They are trying to accomplish an Arab world among other things. Different nation-states in the Middle East view themselves as independent territories and nations. I am all for an Arab world but it needs to be accomplished in a legitimate way. Until then I would say that we are not even close to being one