x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

America needs reform itself, not more empty words

It is always easier to discuss what other countries and their leaders must do than face the hard realities of your own backyard. This is especially true for the United States, and its dealings in the Arab world.

When speaking about the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond, the language used in the United States is euphoric. Expressions like "nothing will ever be the same again" and "the existing order is being swept away" are common.

But when it came time for action on Friday, the exuberant rhetoric was pushed aside - after two years of making promises to the Palestinians, the Obama administration blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. "The president had no choice," the pundits say, "he had to veto. Republicans would have pounced on him and the pro-Israel crowd would have made his life miserable." This is the accepted wisdom.

It is always easier to discuss what other countries and their leaders must do than face the hard realities of your own backyard. At the same time, it is both brazen and bizarre that the United States can be so blind to the stark contradictions between what it advocates for others and what it fails to do for itself. But this is what is taking place.

Right now, supporters of the former Bush administration are crowing that they were right, finding new justifications for their past policies to promote democracy - ignoring, of course, the utter hypocrisy of their overall approach to the Middle East.

They gave lip service to democracy, to be sure, but then they led America into two deadly and failed wars (both of which they wrongly predicted would usher in democratic change); turned a blind eye as Israel ravaged Palestinians and Lebanese; and instituted the widespread use of profiling, prolonged detentions without due process, and prisoner abuse. And all the time they pressured Arab allies of the United States to support these bankrupt policies.

The result was that Arab public opinion was inflamed and some Arab leaders who had allied themselves with America lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people, making them more vulnerable and less receptive to proceed on reforms. Then, after hard-line religious parties in several countries made strong gains in elections, the Bush administration, not liking the outcome, shelved the democracy rhetoric.

More disturbing than this current, predictable neo-conservative effort to rewrite history and hijack the Arab uprising, is the fact that many liberals can find no more creative response to these Arab uprisings than to become latter-day neo-conservatives themselves.

All this posturing ignores several uncomfortable truths. America's popularity across the Arab world is as low as it was during the Bush era and the optimism that resulted from President Barack Obama's Cairo speech has all but evaporated.

America is not unpopular among many Arabs because it has supported their leaders. Rather, it is some Arab leaders who have become unpopular because they have supported US policies. The United States in a real sense is no longer in the game, having dealt itself out. In their efforts to make change in their own countries, Tunisians and Egyptians weren't looking to the United States. This was their movement, not the Americans'.

There is a real danger that in this moment of crisis Washington will either learn the wrong lessons or learn no lessons at all. What is required is to recognise the degree to which US policies of the past have alienated Arab public opinion, undercut its stated values and put at risk those who sought to be its friends.

At a critical moment in the midst of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King delivered his "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam". In this speech, he said: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values ... A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of our past and present policies." This challenge is as true today as it was then.

Unless US political leaders can put aside politics as usual and end their callous disregard for the suffering of Palestinians; unless leaders are willing to challenge their political fears and do what is right, instead of what is convenient; unless the country can stand up against Islamophobes who threaten to tear apart the fabric of the nation; unless the people can restore their commitment to fundamental freedoms and constitutional protections; and unless Washington can stop ignoring Arab concerns and truly listen to what Arabs are saying about their needs and aspirations, the United States will continue to operate clumsily and, at times, brutally on the wrong side of history.

As Arabs seek change at home, the challenge America faces is to question how it can bring real change to its own country and to the way it deals with the Arab world and people. This is what Mr Obama promised when he said that he would lead the effort to "change Washington" and, in the process, "change America and change the world". This is still the change we need. It hasn't happened yet.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute