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
"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. …