By Rami G. Khouri
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star
newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International
Beirut -- Nothing better captures the great contest that now defines the
Middle East than four telegenic characters who have crisscrossed the
region during the past few weeks: Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes, Khaled
Mashaal and Muqtada al-Sadr.
This would seem to be a match made in heaven: two powerful bearded Arab
politicos who wish to expand their efficient constituencies and militias
into governing systems that enhance the well-being of their fellow
citizens; and, two elegant and eloquent American women who combine the
bouncy enthusiasm of high school democracy cheerleaders with the more
daring inclination to engage in political genetic engineering in order to
enhance the well-being of Arab citizens and the security of Americans in
one magical move.
This happy ideological marriage has not happened.
Instead, Rice, the U.S. secretary of state and Hughes, President Bush's
communications consultant, preach democracy for Arabs in the morning, then
spend the afternoon fighting democratically elected Arabs. In response,
Arab political leaders like Mashaal, the head of Hamas' political bureau,
and al-Sadr, who leads a powerful Shiite movement and militia in Iraq,
increase their legitimacy and their impact through parallel routes. They
engage in politics by being more responsive and accountable to the needs
of their constituents, and they generate wider emotional and political
appeal by defying the United States and its policies and presence in the
So the American women lost ground to the bearded Arabs. This is due to the
simple reason that both the style and substance of Rice-Hughes policies
run sharply counter to the sentiments of ordinary Arabs, while
Mashaal-Sadr politics cater directly to ordinary people's obvious
emotional and political views.
I had the opportunity to experience the style of American diplomacy at a
gathering in Doha where Hughes spoke. She repeated the standard Bush
administration policy goals, but did so in a manner that was rather
condescending and insensitive. She failed to acknowledge many legitimate
Arab concerns, and preached to our region through the narrow lens of
post-Sept. 11 American hurt.
Fine for Texas barbecues, but bad news for Arab gatherings. My reaction to
her talk was that it was a disaster -- an example of public diplomacy
shooting itself in the foot, and hurting the United States' image among
Arabs rather than helping it. I asked perhaps 50 Arabs, Muslims, and even
some Americans at the gathering, and they all had the same view. Hughes'
aggressive, pedantic style makes us keep asking: Why does Washington keep
insulting us in this manner? Hughes is an impressive person; her
speechwriters are diplomatic nitwits.
The equally problematic substance of Washington's policies is manifested
in Rice's recent trip to four Arab capitals. She seeks to persuade Arab
governments to quarantine Hamas and starve the Palestinian government of
aid funds until Hamas changes its views and actions vis-à-vis Israel. This
policy will clearly be rejected by all Arab governments, and may set back
U.S. standing in the region more than any other action in recent years,
perhaps even more than the unpopular Iraq war. This is because U.S.
opposition to Hamas touches and sharply inflames deep nerves that already
anchor widespread global skepticism about U.S. foreign policy.
The first is the sense that the United States is neither serious nor
consistent about promoting democracy.
The second is that the United States fights mightily against Arabs or
others in the region who try to manifest their identity through
expressions of indigenous, mainstream political Islamism.
The third is that Washington wages vigorous battles against any Arabs,
Muslims or others in the world who dare to resist Israel's occupation and
subjugation of Arabs.
The fourth is that Washington treats sovereign Arab governments with
contempt, expecting them to ignore their own public opinion and bend to
America's desires at the snap of a finger.
The fifth is that Washington reflexively parrots Israel's neurotic views
on Hamas, instead of waiting to see the policy of the new Palestinian
government that Hamas will head and then defining its policy response.
Not surprisingly, public opinion and election results throughout the
Middle East now favor mainstream Islamists. These groups succeed because
they simultaneously accept democratic pluralism, defy the United States,
resist Israeli occupation and colonization, and demand less corruption and
more efficient governance at home. Consequently, Mashaal's and al-Sadr's
travels around the Middle East last week are more like a victory lap than
We must challenge some of their past behavior and future plans, to be
sure. But we must also admit that these Islamist leaders have more
legitimacy in the Middle East than all of Rice and Hughes' copious
democratic rhetoric and all the Marines in Mesopotamia put together.
What to do instead? Elected incumbents in Washington, Palestine, Iraq,
Iran, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere should engage honestly, to move toward a
common middle ground where Arab, Iranian, Turkish, European and
American policies could happily coexist.
This desired terrain would include indigenous religious and social values,
universal good governance standards, global principles that assert
national sovereignty and reject colonial occupation, and legitimate
leaders who have both the political credibility and the managerial
capacity to synchronize all these factors into sensible, sustainable
policies. High-profile U.S. officials should explore this more humane,
mutually beneficial approach during their visits to our convoluted lands,
rather than mainly lecture and offend us.
The score up till now: bearded Arabs 1, American women 0.