Misreading the Arab Street’s Anger

The neocon response toward the anger against the U.S. on the Arab and Muslim “street” is to lash out at those countries and to chastise President Obama for his early efforts at out-reach. But Middle East specialists Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett say the real problem was the lack of follow-through.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

We begin by noting our sadness over the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the others who were killed at the consulate in Benghazi. Hillary knew and worked with Chris Stevens during her service in the State Department; he was very highly regarded, professionally and personally, among his colleagues.

In the United States, much of the early discussion about the attack in Benghazi has focused on a question that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself laid out: “How can this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”

The pyramids at Giza in Egypt. (Photo credit: Ricardo Liberato)

In fact, it is not so hard to understand how “this”, along with the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, subsequent protests at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Sanaa, Khartoum and across the region, and myriad other manifestations of resentment against the United States in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, could happen.

But most Americans don’t really want to understand it. For, as Hillary underscored on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC, “the critical issue here is the deep-seated resentment that people have for U.S. policy throughout the region. Hatred and resentment for U.S. policy are the heart of the problem here. Communities throughout the Middle East are angry.”

This reality is now crashing in on U.S. ambitions in the Middle East every day. Yet, as Hillary noted, Americans “have not even begun to grapple with the enormity of the challenge we face as countries become more politically participatory, and people have a voice.”

Over the past few days, we’ve heard more than a few politicians and commentators recommend cutting off aid, or demand that Egyptian President Morsi adopt a tougher rhetorical stance against “extremist” discourse in his own Muslim Brotherhood if he wants a coveted meeting with President Barack Obama.

Against this, Hillary countered that “it a fantasy to think that [the United States] has cards to play,” with which it can leverage key local actors. “The President of Egypt, before he comes to the United States, his first trips were to China and Iran. The train has left the station in these countries, and unless [Washington] figures out how to adapt, [its] strategic position in the Middle East and, therefore, globally will continue to erode.”

So far, though, the United States is clearly not adapting. Why are Americans so reluctant to grapple with Middle Eastern reality? Hillary addressed this critical question on Al Jazeera:

“There’s a really fundamental flaw in U.S. strategic policy and it has to do with empire. We look at each country, at each place, and we see the expatriates that we want to see in the cafés in Paris, who parrot our line about secular liberalism, and we arm, fund, and train them to go back and, in effect, impose a political order on those societies that have very different histories, characters, cares, and concerns. Those expatriates we listen to repeatedly, in Iraq, Iran, Libya, everywhere, we listen to them not because we’re stupid but because we have a very determined focus for dominance.”

Especially in a political season, American elites do not seem at all inclined toward soul-searching about their country’s foreign policy after the events of the past few days. Much has been made of Mitt Romney’s “shoot first, aim later” (to use President Obama’s phrase) comments on events in Libya and Egypt. But Hillary pointed out on Al Jazeera that other prominent Republicans, for example, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, have gone even further than Governor Romney, arguing that President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world during his first year in office, most notably through major addresses delivered in Istanbul and Cairo, was a “mistake” that showed “weakness.”

This is, Hillary noted, the “wrong critique.” For Obama hardly fulfilled the promise that some believed was embodied in his 2009 Istanbul and Cairo speeches, or his campaign pledge not just to end the Iraq war but also to end the “mindset” that had gotten the United States into that strategically and morally failed project. Rather the Obama administration “walked back completely” from those commitments.

The real critique, which Romney, of course, won’t put forward, is “why is the Obama administration really so dishonest in its policies, and how could people in the Middle East really take America’s word seriously as a constructive force.” Until Americans and the politicians can address that, they never will understand “what is the reason” for Middle Easterners’ anger.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For direct link, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/protests-in-the-muslim-world-can-the-united-states-deal-effectively%e2%80%94and-honestly%e2%80%94with-politically-empowered-muslim-societies


5 comments for “Misreading the Arab Street’s Anger

  1. bobzz
    September 17, 2012 at 10:43

    Until we take a more even handed approach to the Palestinian condition, which means dealing with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, our foreign policy will increasingly rile the Muslim population. Now that both Mitt and now Obama have declared all Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, we really look even handed. This has not been mentioned as a factor, but it adds to the mix. I hate to say it but Obama’s actions seem to be reactions to criticisms. He had the perfect chance to explain why Mitt is wrong, wrong, wrong about Jerusalem, and he missed it.

  2. rharwell
    September 17, 2012 at 09:10

    As wise as what HC states, it must remain clear that she is a war lover, a neocon, a war profiteer and what she says sounds like preparation for a run for a run for WH in 2016. Do not be fooled by her rhetoric. She voted for the invasion/occupation of Iraq. She bought into the lies about WMDs, etc. and never denounced any of it. She approved rendition and torture. She is for outsourcing. She has gone along with the shredding of the Constitution and the approval of everyone being a potential terrorist and subject to the arrest of the whims of the President. She is no friend to the social network, basic human rights, or democracy. She does not believe in the rule of law, or sovereignty of other countries. She had never denounced the expansion of drone wars. The list goes on and on.

    • September 17, 2012 at 11:14

      I am thinking you are under the impression that most of the “HIllary” quotes are from Hillary Clinton. They are from one of the two authors, Hillary Mann Leverett. I was a bit thrown when they named Hillary Clinton and quoted Clinton in the next paragraph then followed that with a paragraph in which they authors say that “Hillary countered” without specifying which Hillary. Although it is common enough in multiple-authored pieces to say that “so and so of us authors said” something, in this case it would have been less jarring (to me, at least) and more clear in any case to specifically identify their “Hillary” as one of the authors, and definitely not “the Clinton.” It took me a bit of parsing and backtracking to get that straight for myself.

      • incontinent reader
        September 18, 2012 at 06:13

        Good point. I was shaking my head for a minute thinking there was something substantial to Hillary Clinton that I had never thought existed. It didn’t take long to shed the misimpression.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    September 17, 2012 at 05:02

    “Veni, vidi, vici”, the quote attributed to Julius Caesar, was slightly modified by Hillary Clinton when she noted that Gaddafi was dead: “We came, we saw, he died”, followed by a sarcastic cackle. Ambassador Stevens was apparently one of the back room “players” gambling on the outcome of the Libyan R2P poker game. Anybody see those propaganda pictures of him, starry eyed and awe-struck with patriotic admiration in front of the Lincoln Memorial? A phonier photo-op only Hollywood could dream up. Where do we find such “experts”? Clearly, judging by outcomes, getting the “expert” designator on the career fast-track in diplomacy is not merit based. Somebody is confusing effort with results. Or ass kissing and political connections, maybe, but if the “card to play” analogy holds water, it basically indicts our foreign policy as nothing more than gambling by whoever gets a seat at the table. Stevens is now a hero and a martyr, but had he lived, I wonder if he would have faced any accountability for the obvious disaster that Libya has become. How much of the blame for Hillary Clinton’s “conquering hero” sanctimony would he have ultimately shared? The abject hypocrisy of American foreign policy objectives was plainly revealed by that quote: a banal and unvarnished reference to imperialism. We have these “experts” playing at imperial poker, and when they lose, it must be because the game is rigged against them. After all, they’re “experts”, right? Hanna Arendt’s quote, “The banality of evil”, comes to my mind. In this case, she would say, “The tragedy of incompetence”.

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