x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Arabs can't blame America for all the world's problems

America gets far more blame for events in the Middle East than its policies and power warrant, while nations like Russia rarely face the consequences of intervention

Anti-Americanism, a ubiquitous feature of contemporary Arab political culture, arises from an insidious and deeply- ingrained concept: the myth of American omnipotence.

Thus the will of the United States becomes the default explanation for everything that happens in the Middle East, particularly when people don't like it.

America the omnipotent occupies a unique position in the moral economy of contemporary Arab political thought: it is always blamed for whatever people don't like, but rarely gets credit for anything that most in the Arab world find good.

Recent events in Egypt are only the most striking and current demonstrations of this very long-standing pattern.

Supporters of the former Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, are convinced that the United States was directly responsible for his removal from office.

But his opponents believe, perhaps even more strongly, that Washington had put Mr Morsi into power and wanted to keep him there.

The Egyptian media has been full of the most bizarre theories, from both sides, about various supposed conspiracies hatched by US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson.

Virtually the only thing Egyptians now agree upon is that whatever it is they don't like, it must be the fault of the United States.

The same kind of assumptions apply in Syria. Last year I took part in a televised debate, on an Arabic TV outlet, along with three Syrians.

The first, a Salafist, argued that the Americans wanted to keep the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, in power, and that this was at the behest of Israel, because the Israelis feared the "Islamic Awakening".

The second, a nationalist, agreed that the US did indeed want Mr Al Assad to stay in power, but for a different reason: because he had cooperative relations with Israel.

The third Syrian participant in the broadcast, a regime stooge, insisted on the contrary that there was an American plot to overthrow Mr. Al Assad, because he was the leader of "resistance" against Israel.

But how did it happen that the United States has become this "great Satan" that is said to deserve, and that gets, the blame for all bad things?

Like western Islamophobia, the pervasive anti-Americanism we see has been fuelled by centuries of rivalry between Muslims and the Christian West. Arabs feel, and for good reason, that they have in many ways been mistreated by the colonialist powers.

Further, decades of nationalistic, religious, xenophobic and chauvinistic propaganda have entrenched anti-American narratives. After all, since the 1950s, the US has been the primary regional power  in the Middle East and has acted like it, with all the regional resentment that naturally follows.

But the underlying, latent theme actually seems to be a profound sense of unrequited love.

Of course anti-Americanism is consciously and cynically abused in much Arab political rhetoric. But it's so pervasive and visceral that it most closely resembles the rage of a jilted romantic partner.

Why is America so inexplicably biased towards Israel? Why are their policies always so unfair? Since America is omnipotent, and bad things keep happening, why does the US do them?

Yet while Arabs rail against the United States, they indisputably love its culture and products. They fight for visas, and to send their children to US universities. Even Islamists like Mr Morsi studied and taught in California.

Arab sensibilities about international relations are defined by a profound sense of disempowerment, which is even stronger when contrasted with the illusion of American omnipotence. These fantasies feed each other in a neurotic vicious circle.

Even as American influence around the world is palpably waning, absurdities - such as the idea that the recent abdication of the Emir of Qatar was, for some reason, "ordered" by Washington - remain common.

Things look radically different from DC, where a new and uncharacteristic sense of helplessness has taken root in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, the Afghan failure and the fiscal calamity.

Washington looks at Syria and incorrectly sees no good options. It thinks that it has virtually no influence in Egypt. Even in its most familiar territory, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, US policymakers feel that they are at the mercy of the domestic politics and caprices of Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

The new US feeling of impotence, or at least risk-aversion, is just as exaggerated as are Arab delusions about US omnipotence. There is much the US can do to help its friends in the Arab world, if only it would. But there is a persistent, crippling reticence to support those who share American goals or values, particularly if they are not fully trusted by Israel.

Arab anti-Americanism rests on two pillars: disillusionment and perceived betrayal by an ideal, combined with a wild overestimation of US power. Arabs therefore oscillate between yearning for American leadership and resenting American clout.

Contrast the ubiquitous negative Arab sentiments towards the United States with the Arab world's almost total lack of interest in the role of Russia. Yet if there is an external power up to no good in the Middle East, it is Russia. Its support for the Syrian dictatorship has helped kill at least 100,000 people in the past two and a half years.

But there is no unrequited love affair with Russia, and so no sense of betrayal, no feeling of an abandoned ideal or a love-hate neurosis. That Russia does what's in its interest is simply accepted with a shrug. The dearth of outrage about Russia's Syrian role, and of conspiracy theories about the Kremlin's machinations, reveals Arab anti-Americanism to be a collective neurotic symptom, fundamentally disconnected from reality.

 

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @Ibishblog