US, Arabs Face Legacy of Mistrust

Article excerpt

AS the United States embarks on a historic mission to defend Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression, it will be struggling to overcome the largely negative legacy of four decades of involvement in the Middle East.

In the wake of Friday's decision by the Arab League to send a symbolic force to Saudi Arabia, anti-American demonstrations erupted in Jordan while leftists in Egypt condemned the presence of Western troops on Arab soil.

Iraq's President Saddam Hussein has called on Arabs to wage a holy war to expel the outsiders from the heart of the Islamic world.

Such calls have widespread popular appeal because of centuries of Western domination of the Middle East. In pursuit of its three main postwar objectives in the region - protecting Israel, maintaining access to Gulf oil, and until now, containing communism - the US has become the focus of Arab resentment.

"There is this longing among the Arabs to be a great nation and restore the days when they were an independent power," says Alfred Atherton, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Egypt. "They have a feeling of inferiority vis-a-vis the West. There is this perception that the West has conspired to keep the Arabs weak and divided."

Washington's relations with the Arab world have been rocky since the day the US stepped onto the international stage as leader of the postwar "free world."

As a close friend of the region's main colonial powers, Britain and France, the US suffered a kind of guilt by association in the eyes of many Arab leaders.

Doubts about the US were reinforced in the mid-1950s, when it attempted to harness the Arab states to the task of containing communism, even as Arab nations - inspired by the rhetoric of Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser - rallied to the standard of nonalignment.

"The US saw everything in black and white," says one Arab official. "The US was saying you're either with us or against us at a time when we were just coming out of colonial rule. The US was twisting our arms."

By far the biggest obstacle to smooth US-Arab relations has been Washington's staunch support for the tiny Jewish state carved out of Palestine in 1948.

Through the mid-1960s, the US maintained a relatively balanced approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, US policy strongly tilted toward Israel at the expense of Palestinian aspirations for a homeland. The US eventually elevated Israel to the status of strategic ally.

Arabs complain that the same country that now roundly condemns Iraq's forcible acquisition of Kuwaiti territory looked the other way when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, annexed Arab east Jerusalem, and eventually invaded Lebanon.

"The image of the United States in the Arab world is that it always helped, armed, and financed the country that had wanted to occupy the Arabs," says the Arab official. "This is not a question of imagination. This is actual fact."

SUCH strong support for Israel has taken its toll on US relations with important Arab countries, many analysts say.

After backers of Israel in Congress regularly blocked or restricted arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for example, the frustrated Saudis turned to Britain as their major arms supplier. Congress also demanded that Jordan agree to negotiate with Israel before approving military aid to the Hashemite Kingdom. …