Progress in the Arab world will come from self-reflection, not
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
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.
The Arab blame game
Bernard Lewis, the renowned Princeton scholar of Islam, has
called attention to the Arab tendency to play "the blame game. …