Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dozens of disappointing Pew polls later, with the United States government having earmarked vast sums of money for public diplomacy, you have to wonder whether Washington hasn’t run up a blind alley in its desire to be popular among Arabs. An obscure Israeli-American real estate developer in California uploads a video condemning the Prophet Mohammad, and mobs storm the American consulate in Benghazi, killing an ambassador. In Cairo, demonstrators attack the fortified American Embassy building. Utterly irrelevant, evidently, is the fact that Egypt has benefited from billions of dollars in American aid for over three decades, or that the U.S. helped militarily overthrow Moammar Gadhafi last year.

However, the issue here is not the ungratefulness of the Arabs. There were doubtless quite a few Egyptians and Libyans unhappy with what took place this week. There were probably many more with no opinion whatsoever, who are neither fond of America nor the contrary, largely because America is absent from their daily life.

That doesn’t change the fact that anti-Americanism is more the norm than the exception in the Arab world, even if a vast majority of people never expresses that sentiment in violent ways.

Whether it is Obama or Bush, the American sirens calling for more love are apparently not having their effect. The Americans are to blame in many ways, just as many in the Arab world are at fault, not least for their hypocrisy when it comes to America. However, the disconnect between America and the Arabs goes beyond perceptions of mutual behavior to include more systemic problems.

Perhaps we must seriously consider that the Arab world has so internalized its disapproval of the United States over time....that anti-Americanism has become a constant of Arab political discourse.

The reality is that when no clear, overriding strategy exists for America’s approach to the Middle East, administrations function more on the basis of domestic politics, calculations and rivalries, and these tend to be alien to the concerns of the Arab countries they influence.

The White House and the State Department would do best to save their public diplomacy funds and focus more on a redefining a lasting, bipartisan strategy toward the Middle East that can span administrations. This has not been done in a serious way since 9/11, and it needs to be at this essential moment when Arab countries are facing momentous change. In politics, love is overrated.

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