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  We just came back from three weeks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.  Our Chairman, Wyche Fowler, our Director of Communications, Maggie Mitchell and I went to the region to examine what is happening, what the leaders are thinking and what the people of the region believe. The results were discouraging.  The image of the United States has suffered badly since the failure of the Camp David talks.  We found frustration, anger, misconceptions, and a lot of confusion about what this country and this Administration stand for.  We found that the U.S. government was not communicating well and that the multiple voices coming out of Washington were adding to the confusion.  In addition, we found very little understanding of what the United States went through on September 11 last year and how that experience has shifted our national perceptions and priorities.

   When we last visited the region, in October 2001, our interlocutors voiced shock and grief for American losses and fear of our response – notably anti-Arab, anti-Muslim backlash. These concerns were voiced along with frustration at the President’s disinclination to weigh in on the increasingly violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  Now, despite the President’s April 4 Rose Garden statement and vision for a two-state solution, we found increasing levels of frustration, anger, misconceptions, and a lot of confusion about what this country and this Administration stands for.  Unfortunately, the U.S. government is still not communicating well and the multiple voices coming out of Washington are adding to the confusion. 

   Longstanding MEI friends in the region, notably Arab businessmen with considerable ties to the U.S., warned us of growing anti-Americanism. One prominent businessman said he would not smoke Marlboros any more but had switched to French cigarettes. Another said his children would not drink Cokes or let him go to McDonalds. He admitted that this would have little impact on U.S. companies and would only hurt local suppliers and franchise holders. But he had the sense that he had to do something, and the symbolic act of an unofficial boycott, ineffective though it might be, symbolized his commitment to the Palestinians.  Parents were looking for boarding schools and universities in Europe so that they could transfer their children out of American schools. Much of this is also the result of widespread stories that Arab visitors to the U.S. and Arab-Americans are treated in a demeaning, prejudicial manner. The 40-day wait for even the most routine visitor visa, including visas for frequent business travelers, is also eroding confidence in an American sense of fair play. And now the Justice Department has only fanned the flames of popular indignation by proposing a fingerprinting requirement for many Arabs and Moslems entering the United States.

   We are a hair’s breadth away from the development of serious, long-term negative reactions against the United States, particularly among the younger generation. In Saudi Arabia we were told that a generational divide was already developing, due to a number of factors.  The older generation has studied and lived in the United States, whereas an increasing number of young Saudis are staying at home, in part due to financial considerations. Over 60% of the population is under 25 and a vast majority is subjected to an educational system that the Saudis admit is in need of reform. While hundreds of Americans helped develop the country, working side by side with Saudi counterparts, now the demand to replace Westerners with Saudis has dried up one means of cross-cultural exposure. Finally, the young are exposed to some 30 Arabic TV stations broadcasting Israeli actions in the West Bank without any balance or attempt to represent the impact of terrorism on the Israelis. What is happening in Saudi Arabia is also happening throughout the region.

   There is a strong impression in the Middle East that we don’t know much about the region. Our friends liked to tweak us on gaffes made by self-styled experts on various US television networks that are carried throughout the region. While we were in Egypt, the story was making the rounds that a poll had been conducted in the United States after the President’s “Axis of Evil” speech. The American respondents to the poll were asked what countries formed the Axis of Evil. After careful thought, some respondents replied, “Iran, Iraq and France”.  Indeed, very few people in the region had the foggiest notion of what the President was talking about when he grouped Iraq, Iran and North Korea together.  And while the White House tried to explain the context of the remark, the message the people of the region got was that the United States was going to invade Iraq, then Iran and finally North Korea. Nothing the President has said since has changed this popular perception – if anything, his recent comments, and comments by the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense have only reaffirmed this conviction.  The popular interpretation of the President’s remark was not shared by the leadership.  We found no one at the leadership level who was concerned about a US military effort against Iran.

   However, they did continue to worry about a military response in Iraq. Virtually every leader we talked to, including President Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah told us we would be making a huge mistake if we sought to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein without dealing effectively first with the Palestinian issue. President Mubarak warned of the regional instability that could ensue, particularly in the face of mounting Palestinian casualties at Israeli hands. There were no advocates of Saddam Hussein.  And while certain moves toward apparent reconciliation have been made by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, we found no illusions about the nature of the Iraqi regime or Saddam Hussein.  It certainly was our impression that, if we made progress on the Palestinian file, then there would be much greater understanding of steps we might make to deal with Saddam Hussein.

   We were surprised by the number of individuals in the region, including some at the highest levels, who still question the role of Arabs in the September 11th attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. According to these individuals, Arabs would not have been sufficiently clever to pull off such an attack. What devastating self-deprecation; and how totally wrong. Such a view might simply stem from wishful thinking. In part, it reflects an assumption that only a mastermind of great power and sophistication could outwit the all-powerful United States and wreak such destruction. 

   Many Arabs, including the educated and leadership elites, believe that the United States is overwhelmingly powerful since the decline of the Soviet Union. And because of this power, they believe we can act at will in the world. This impression is reinforced every time one of our own neo-conservative politicians and talking heads expounds on the need for the US to go it alone and to impose our will on the world in places like Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.  The corollary is that when we do not do something, then there must be a reason.

   For example, we have been calling for the end of Saddam Hussein for a number of years, and yet he still rules in Baghdad. Many of our friends in the region have concluded that we must want Saddam Hussein to remain in power because he gives us an excuse to maintain our military presence in the Gulf.  The average Saudi or Egyptian does not understand the brutal efficiency of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and security apparatus, which make him virtually immune from attack.  They also do not understand the limits on US intelligence capabilities. 

   If you believe that we have the power to snap our fingers and get rid of Saddam Hussein, then it is even more credible that we can tell the Israelis what to do. The people we talked to, for example, could not understand how President Bush could have supported a UN Security Council Resolution that called for an investigation of Israel’s attack on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied territories, and then stood by while Prime Minister Sharon refused to let the investigators enter Israel. And even more telling, in their minds, was the President’s reiterated and vigorous demand that Sharon pull his troops back from the Palestinian cities, which Sharon ignored. The conclusion many of my friends drew was that the President was giving a green light to Sharon behind the scenes while placating the Arab world.

   People from the top of society to the bottom were stunned, for example, by President Bush’s claim that Sharon was a man of peace. Of all the statements the President has made, that was the least understood.  The President had not established a context for his statement. And whereas such a public statement may have played a necessary part in the President’s successful effort to prevent Arafat’s assassination or expulsion and to release him from the Israeli grip, that case was not made. 

   The Palestinian file was the focus of every leader we talked to. President Mubarak was deeply concerned about the situation and the popular identification of the United States with Israel’s military engagement in the Palestinian areas. The leadership in a number of Arab states we visited questioned the viability of an international conference at this point and President Mubarak reminded me that Secretary Baker had worked intensively for six months to prepare for the Madrid conference. This was work that still had to be done, he felt. 

   The Saudi Crown Prince left no doubt about his satisfaction with his reception by the President in Crawford, Texas. And he was encouraged by what he heard. But he is waiting for results. He is also hopeful. President Mubarak was also encouraged by the new activism of the United States on the Palestinian issue – late perhaps but welcome. He recognized the President’s contributions in averting a disaster by ensuring the survival and freedom of Arafat and preventing an Israeli attack on Gaza.  And he was emphatic in condemning suicide attacks and in pushing for reform in the Palestinian Authority.  He was looking forward to his visit to Washington.

   Mubarak and Abdullah, were both skeptical and frustrated with the direction of some members of the U.S. Administration. They do not understand the political and ideological rift that seems to be dividing the Pentagon from the State Department. In fact, they felt that the Administration lacked policy clarity and was sending contradictory messages. It appeared to them that the Administration had not decided yet on its direction and that the President was being pulled one day in one direction and in another the next. 

   In each case, with both Mubarak and Abdullah, we were warned about confusion among their populations, pressures on the leadership and the prospect of long-term damage to U.S. interests in the region. We were warned that we are jeopardizing long-standing patterns of friendship and in each case, with both Mubarak and Abdullah, we were warned about confusion among their populations, pressures on the leadership and the prospect of long-term damage to U.S. interests in the region. We were warned that we are jeopardizing long-standing patterns of friendship and trust. We were warned, as well, that the younger generation in the region was growing up with the idea that the American people are deeply prejudiced against Arabs and against Islam.

   It is this last charge that may be the hardest to overcome in the future. Our greatest asset in the region is the expectation that the United States stands for fairness, justice, democracy, equality and a host of other moral criteria that set us apart from much of the world.  For the thirty-five years I have been engaged with the Middle East, the United States has maintained its interests, largely, because of a belief in the region, first expressed by President Sadat, that only the United States could bring peace to the region.  What will happen to our interests when that belief no longer prevails? And what will happen to our leadership ability when our moral authority is debased? One senior official in the Gulf was deeply concerned by some of the steps that the US was taking in reaction to September 11th - indefinite detention of aliens without charge; trial by military court without civilian judicial review; and profiling by criteria of age, gender and origin.  What a built-in excuse for every two-bit dictator to do the same thing, he noted. The United States, which has preached human rights to the world, is losing its moral authority to do so, he said.

   Our system is self-righting. Our political and judicial systems will reestablish a balance if we go too far in defense of corporate rights over individual rights. But this is not something that most people in the region understand. Certainly, we need to put greater emphasis on the nature of our democracy when we talk to the region. At the same time, we need to be very careful about closing ourselves off from the rest of the world through security measures, which while onerous for the innocent are easily circumvented by the guilty. One of our principal strengths in the region has been the fact that our universities have educated so many of the elites in the area.

   It seemed to us that the United States has a major challenge in the region that cannot be answered by public diplomacy alone, although that is a part of the answer. The significant missing ingredient that we confronted was the absence of certainty and clarity in U.S. policy pronouncements. To people in the region, the President does not appear to be staying on message, he is reinterpreted by his spokesman and he is seemingly contradicted from time to time by his Pentagon or, alternatively, his State Department.  The problem may well be with U.S. policies toward the Palestinian issue, Iraq, terrorism, etc.  But no one we talked to could put their finger precisely on what those policies were. 

   At the time we were in the region, government leaders were waiting for the highly advertised President’s speech on Middle East policy. From every contact I have had in the region since that speech, the reaction has been one of disappointment and continued confusion about U.S. policy. We appeal for reform and democracy for the Palestinian people while dictating that Arafat cannot serve, even if elected by the Palestinians in a free and fair election. This serious inconsistency both undermines the validity of our support for reform, which our Arab allies back as well, and has caused bewilderment and disillusion throughout the region. We appear to have turned our backs on true democratic principles. This, coupled with our newfound support for detention without trial and trial by military court, has shattered the hopes of many in the Middle East that the U.S. stands for something better than common practices in the region. “How,” one university professor asked, “Can we expect reform of excesses that take place in the region when leaders can point to similar practices in the U.S.?” The comparison is overdrawn but it is having a profound impact on our credibility.



Edward S. Walker, Jr.



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