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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab World (Part II)

How have U.S. missteps in the Arab world augmented the political base of anti-Americanism?

August 21, 2007

How have U.S. missteps in the Arab world augmented the political base of anti-Americanism?

In addition to the United States’ dependence on energy supplied by the Middle East, several other factors remain at stake in U.S.-Arab relations. Chief among these is the United States’ clear national interest in achieving the peaceful integration of Israel into its region.

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab World
by Chas W. Freeman
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Israel cannot hope to enjoy peaceful coexistence with its Arab and Muslim neighbors through endless military intimidation of them or their Palestinian kin.

Nor will the Arabs accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in their midst if Israel rules its captive Arab population under the cruelties of martial law while highhandedly expanding its borders at Arabs’ expense. Until it negotiates peace with the Palestinians, Israel will remain under siege and insecure.

After nearly 60 years of existence, the State of Israel is an established fact, but its future therefore remains precarious. Arab leaders now publicly acknowledge Israel’s existence and express willingness to accept it, providing Israel ends its oppression of the Palestinians and halts its dispossession of them from their homes. But resentment and loathing of Israel among Arab publics has never been so intense.

The result is constant low-intensity conflict, punctuated by occasional outbursts of large-scale warfare in which the United States is inevitably implicated. The danger that conflict in the Holy Land will erupt into a global struggle between the supporters of Israel and its foes is also ever present.

Meanwhile, without the personal security that only peace can provide, many of Israel’s most productive Jewish inhabitants have begun openly to contemplate seeking peace and security by leaving the country to find new homes abroad.

It is entirely possible that, without peace, the Zionist experiment will wither away, leaving behind it only the bitter hatreds that it and the Arab reaction to it have engendered.

In terms of U.S. interests, there is nothing optional about the pursuit of peaceful coexistence between Israel, the Palestinians and Israel’s other Arab neighbors. It is an imperative. The alternative is not just more violence in the short term — it is the permanent embitterment of the Arabs and the end of Israel in the long term.

Third, as differences between Israel, the West and the Arabs have come increasingly to be defined in religious terms, we Americans have acquired an interest in the character of the religious order in which Arabs participate.

There are 325 million Arabs — most Muslim, but many Christian and some Jewish, despite Israel’s ingathering of the world’s Jews.

Arab Muslims make up only one-fifth of the 1.4-billion-member global Muslim community, but they are a decisively influential fifth. The Islamic holy places are in Arabia, and the language of Islam is Arabic.

Religion creates a sense of shared identity that can transcend ethnicity, especially in response to denigration of their faith or discrimination, humiliation or assaults by outsiders on those who share it. Attacks on Arabs, whether Palestinian or Iraqi, are felt by other Muslims.

The brutality that has attended the Israeli colonization of Palestinian lands, the many deaths in Iraq from a decade of U.S. sanctions — followed by our invasion and occupation of Iraq and last summer’s U.S.-approved Israeli savaging of Lebanon — are all cases in point.

Arab rage at perceived injustice easily translates into Muslim anger toward its perceived perpetrators. Increasingly hostile relations with the Arabs are estranging Muslims everywhere from Americans.

The effects of U.S. policy toward West Asia and North Africa thus spill over to affect our relations with the rest of Asia and Africa, including non-Arab but Muslim Iran and Turkey, and Central, South and Southeast Asia as well as key countries like Nigeria.

The United States has many interests in cooperative relations with these countries, not least in preventing them from becoming supporters of terrorist actions against Americans.

Consider, too, the energy dimension. These nations hold yet another 20% of the world’s oil and gas reserves.

A fourth U.S. interest arises from the fact that Arab countries and predominantly Muslim lands like Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran straddle or abut the world’s major transportation routes.

It’s not just the security of oil and gas supplies that is the issue here, though the Straits of Lombok, Macassar, Malacca, Hormuz and the Bab al Mandeb are vital links in the energy trade.

You can’t travel between Asia (which is becoming the world’s economic center of gravity) and Europe without transiting these countries’ air or sea space.

The U.S. status as a global power depends on the maintenance of a permissive environment for the transit of our armed forces.

In military affairs, logistics are key. Our country has a big stake in sustaining cooperative military ties with the Arabs and other Muslim peoples and access to their air and sea space.

Hostile relationships with these countries have the potential to cripple our capacity to project our power not just in the Middle East, but beyond it.

As an example, consider the difficulties the Pentagon is now having finding a North African Arab country willing to welcome the headquarters of its new Africa command.

Fifth, we Americans have a major economic interest in encouraging the Arabs to reinvest the money they earn from energy sales in ways that benefit us.

More than 30 years ago, as increased oil prices began to flood their economies with “petrodollars,” Arab oil producers made a commitment to plow this money back into the American economy. Both we and they benefited greatly from this. But today, our posture toward Arab investment is decidedly unwelcoming.

Arabs doubt that money they put here can be secure from politically motivated intervention by our monetary authorities or harassment by the army of tort litigators who live off the legal blackmail our system now facilitates.

The result has been Arab disinvestment from the United States, followed by the redirection of new investment elsewhere, for example to China.

There is even talk about Arab abandonment of the use of the dollar as the unit of account for the oil trade. In fact, one major Arab oil producer recently decided to end the peg that had tied its currency to the dollar. Oil exporting countries are now accumulating annual surpluses of $600 billion or more.

The consequences for our economy of a change in the role of the dollar in international energy and related commodity markets would be profound.

Sixth and lastly, but far from least, we have an interest in preventing and ultimately reducing anti-Americanism, especially anti-Americanism that takes the form of terrorist action against Americans.

It has generally been thought wise in foreign affairs to try to divide one’s enemies — rather than to say or do things that unite them. Frankly, as we have drifted into what is now seen among Muslims everywhere as an assault on Islam and its believers, we have steadily broadened the political base of Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism.

Al Qaeda and other enemies of the United States now think they have a chance to unite much of the Muslim world to their cause, form a broad coalition against us — and multiply their numbers many fold.