We can probably all agree on some basic points about U.S. foreign policy since 1990. A turn toward domestic problems leaves Americans in no mood for foreign adventure. Hopes for a "peace dividend" are leading to deep cuts in the Pentagon's budget. Military interventions in Somalia and Haiti were undertaken for humanitarian purposes.
Try telling Middle Easterners! They widely believe the U.S. government is making plans to dominate the whole world. No kidding. With the Soviet collapse, nothing stands in our way. And the Middle East, because it has a mix of what we like (oil) and what we supposedly don't (Islam), is target No. 1 on the U.S. list.
If the U.S. government seeks world hegemony, it only makes sense to blame every problem on it.
This, sad to say, is not some crank opinion but the considered conclusion of leading politicians, journalists, religious thinkers, and academics. Of course, sober voices also exist, and they interpret the United States in a sensible way. But America-taking-over-the-world fears are nearly omnipresent in speeches, on television, and in books. They constitute an unpleasant and dangerous reality.
"New World Order"
The regimes in Iran and Iraq disagree on just about everything-except their perception of the United States. Iran's Ahmad Khomeini (son of the late ayatollah) says Americans are establishing a "mastery and domination over the world." Using almost identical language, Iraq's number-two strongman, Taha Yasin Ramadan, accuses Americans of seeking to impose a "unilateral U.S. hegemony over the world."
How do they know this? Because George Bush told them. His talk of a "new world order" signaled to them a plan for American hegemony. We Americans know that the phrase was never more than a dimly conceived, anodyne notion about politics after the cold war, lacking operational importance and quickly forgotten. In the Middle East the phrase lives on, ominous and programmatic.
Middle Easterners cluster around three explanations for why Washington seeks world hegemony. Predictably, perhaps, fundamentalist Muslims discern hatred of Islam as the key motive. For the Muslim Brethren, "The New World Order simply aims at crushing Islam and its people in the Islamic world, in fact in the entire world." This enmity results from a mix of a Christian "spirit of the Crusades" and Jewish plans for a Greater Israel.
Nationalists stress colonialist motives. According to the Libyans, the Central Intelligence Agency is putting together "a world dictatorial police system under the control of the United States where freedom, justice, and democracy have no worth and where colonialism will be restored." A Jordanian newspaper reports from an alleged National Security Council Document (No. 2,000) that the U.S. government, in effect, has plans to turn "Arabs and Muslims into the new Red Indians under the hegemony of the New World Order."
Oil potentates fear American lust for Middle Eastern oil resources. Baghdad media reports that Washington dreams of "securing complete and total control over the Arabian Gulf oil fields and rearranging the international scene without any obstruction or real crises."
These three themes-anti-Islam, colonialism, and oil avarice-recur when Middle Easterners look at American intentions. Let's look at five specific cases.
The Kuwait Crisis
Defying common sense, many in the Middle East see the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91 as an American "trap" for Saddam Husayn. Qadhdhafi asked rhetorically, "Who told Iraq to invade Kuwait?" and replied, "It was America." Syria's defense minister developed an elaborate thesis about Norman Schwartzkopf pretending to scout out Kuwait on Iraq's behalf, eight months before the Iraqi invasion actually took place.
Middle Easterners came up with some colorful (and contradictory) reasons for Washington to spin such a plot. They postulated four American motives.
- Religious: The West hopes to impose "American-style Islam" on Muslims. Jerusalem is already under the Jews; the 1990 dispatch of American soldiers to Saudi Arabia brought Mecca and Medina under Christian rule.
- Economic: Washington sought to improve the U.S. economy by controlling Muslim oil-exporting states such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Algeria. Or it saw the Kuwait crisis raising oil prices; or it hoped to benefit from selling weapons to the combatants.
- Political: The crisis slowed the tempo of unification in Europe or provided a way for the Washington to keep the European allies obedient to its will. Others saw it as a "ballyhoo" which allowed Saddam Husayn, a confirmed U.S. lackey, to portray himself as anti-American.
- Military: The Iraqi invasion created a state of fear in Saudi Arabia and the other oil sheikhdoms, and so induced their leaders to accept a U.S. security umbrella. As a result, Washington attained "the long-cherished American dream" of dispatching American troops to the Persian Gulf.
World Trade Center
A New York court of law found a gang of six Middle Easterners guilty of bombing the World Trade Center in February 1993. Americans took them and their virulently anti-Western religious leader, Omar Abdel Rahman, at their word: they are fundamentalist Muslims who hate the United States and wish to harm Americans. Few Middle Easterners saw things so simply. For them, the real question is, Which government was the gang working for, the American or the Israeli?
One faction contends that "Omar Abdel Rahman is a CIA agent" who serves his master by discrediting Islam. According to a Cairo magazine, "The West is working to explode Islam from inside by attracting people like him." He received U.S. funds to promote terrorism in the Middle East. Why an explosion in New York City? Because that's the best place to discredit Islam in the eyes of Americans.
Others say that Israeli intelligence stood behind the World Trade Center bombing. Egyptian columnist Ihsan Bakr speculated about an attempt to discredit Palestinians. "No Palestinian party . . . would have undertaken such an operation because it would harm all of them." But in far away Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian Action Front opined that Mossad undertook the operation to discredit Islam.
The same themes pop up about the Somalia intervention. Americans may think their troops went to that forlorn country to save the lives of starving Somalis, but a Jordanian newspaper saw mass starvation as a new U.S. "scheme aimed at creating further tension" to justify "the dispatch of its war machine." The People's Arab and Islamic Congress, a fundamentalist group, claimed the U.S. purpose was not feeding people but just the reverse: "genocide" against the Somali people.
Many groups and governments accused Washington of establishing a new colonialism in Somalia. They differed only in the extent of their fears. The Iraqi news service portrayed an American entry "through the gate of death and starvation" leading to control over Somalia. A Beirut newspaper saw the tragedy as an "excuse to intervene to reshape the political situation in the Horn of Africa and the entire center of Africa." (And if you think Somalia is an unlikely place for Americans to take over, the Libyan news agency reported on Rwanda that the Western states fabricated problems there "with the aim of military intervention" there.) Lebanon's fundamentalist organization Hizbullah went further, seeing a global menace. "On the pretext of providing food aid and achieving peace, the United States is conducting a new colonial policy in a world approaching the twenty-first century, using UN institutions for the plan."
Others smelled oil. Never mind that Somalia has none; it is in the general vicinity of the Persian Gulf, and that was enough for the Jordanian news agency to call Somalia an "important strategic region" and Iranian radio to refer to its "strategic location." The editors of a Palestinian newspaper in Jerusalem concluded that the Somalia expedition's objective was to tighten an American "grip over Arab oil."
Cairo Population Conference
The Cairo population conference of September 1994 featured a contest between the Vatican and the Clinton Administration over the morality of abortion, right? Wrong. It was really a stage for the West to weaken Islam by undercutting Muslim birth rates. In an astonishing (but typical) statement, a leading Egyptian religious figure announced that Western efforts to spread birth control are "prompted solely by the growing vitality of Muslims. Should Muslims disappear from the surface of the earth, this debate would come to an end and all people will be left to propagate at will." A spokesman for the Muslim Brethren read much meaning into the conference locale: ""It is no coincidence that they chose Cairo, the heart of Islam, to unleash this attack. . . . An attempt is underway to change the world, starting with an attack on Islam." If the conference succeeded, an Iraqi daily stated, the West would destroy the Muslim world "by flaring wars and crises, causing famines, spreading fatal epidemics, disintegrating the family system, and encouraging the collapse of social values."
Looking ahead, television satellite dishes (whereby individuals can receive programs directly from the sky, bypassing their governments) promise to provide a fertile battleground for misunderstanding. Along with an Egyptian fundamentalist writer, many Muslims believe that "The West has directed these dishes at us; they are dishes for hunger and starvation." Why so? Because, an Iranian ayatollah explains, the television fare amounts to a "cultural onslaught" that undermines the sanctities of Islam: "The satellite is exactly against the honorable Prophet, exactly against the Qur'an."
Similar suspicions color the understanding of almost every U.S. government action in the Middle East, including the U.S.-Israel bond and the peace process. In the aggregate, this distrust creates a deeply mistaken perception of the United States and its goals in the Middle East, and because the United States looms so large, it distorts the foreign and even the domestic policies throughout the Middle East.
One example: When the Jordanian government in 1990 attempted to curb the country's very high birth rate, a fundamentalist leader in parliament denounced contraception as "a conspiracy serving Zionist plans to deprive Arab lands . . . of much needed manpower." If oral contraceptives are indeed part of a plot to reduce the number of Muslims, how will Jordan contain its population? If encouraging condoms is really a subtle form of genocide, how will the AIDS virus be stopped?
And things are getting worse. This writer has studied the Muslim world for a quarter century and he finds it and the Western world more than ever on separate wave lengths. The planet gets smaller, contacts proliferate, but Middle Easterners and Westerners understand each other less and less. Rudyard Kipling's famous lament, "Oh, East is East, and West is West,/and never the twain shall meet," seems today more true than ever.
While Americans can't right these terrible distortions, we can be aware of them and take steps to combat them by denying the validity of such outlandish ideas. The high road-not dignifying the outrageous with a response-does not work. Left alone, distortions fester. Better to do as Middle Easterners often do: reply promptly. For example, when the Palestine Liberation Organization spread rumors about Israelis making up part of the American expeditionary force in Saudi Arabia to fight Saddam Husayn, both the Israelis and Saudis immediately denounced the report.
Americans should emulate this practice. Sometimes they do. In October 1989, Secretary of State James Baker directly responded to Iraqi accusations about Washington attempting to bring down Saddam Husayn: "the United States is not involved in any effort to weaken or destabilize Iraq." In some cases, denying American perfidy may work. Egypt's Anwar as-Sadat credited his own enlightenment to Henry Kissinger convincing him that the U.S. government does not have aggressive intentions. If other Middle East leaders can be made aware how badly they misperceive the United States, they will also likely see this country more accurately.