The Arabs' Worst Enemy: Themselves

Article excerpt

Progress in the Arab world will come from self-reflection, not blaming Israel.

News reports that Iraq is increasingly turning away from Washington and toward Iran for advice on forming a new government are disheartening. They tend to confirm earlier warnings that Tehran would be the major beneficiary after the US invasion of Iraq.

Couple that with a Brookings Institution poll showing that Arab optimism about US policy in the Middle East has dropped from 51 percent to only 16 percent, and it reminds us that the first decade of the 21st century has been a pretty sorry one for American interests in the region.

One might have at least expected some applause and gratitude from the Arab street after President Obama ordered an end to US combat operations in Muslim Iraq.

Instead, it was met with sullen silence. An Arab journalist friend explained, "Arabs are always angry. They always look for the bad and then harp on it."

Misperceptions and mental rigidity

Much of the responsibility for what has gone wrong in the past decade lies as much with misperceptions and mental rigidity on the Arab street as with US policy failings.

A small vignette is illustrative. First recall the Muslim world's early infatuation with Barack Obama. After all, his middle name is Hussein, the same as the prophet Muhammad's grandson.

Recently a group of Arab journalists was at the White House when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was speaking. The US president had a tiny, wireless receiver in his ear, giving Obama an instant, simultaneous translation of Mr. Mubarak's remarks. The Arab journalists became quite excited, mistakenly believing Obama really understood Arabic because he was nodding his head. They wanted to believe he was one of them.

In a small way, the incident illustrates how unrealistic are Arab perceptions of the world, and of the United States and its president.

When educated Arabs grasp at such flimsy straws, we should recognize a cultural mind-set that helps explain why the US effort to democratize, reshape, and modernize the Arab Middle East by occupying and nation-building in Iraq faltered miserably.

Eight months after elections in Iraq, politicians in Baghdad still haven't formed a government, as rival sectarian groups fear losing power. Prominent Iraqi Arabs have proved themselves little more than dithering and incompetent complainers, neither proactive nor positive even when it is in their own interest.

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The Arab blame game

Bernard Lewis, the renowned Princeton scholar of Islam, has called attention to the Arab tendency to play "the blame game. …