Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Still Tarnished

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 18, 2012 --  

The end of the Bush presidency didn't stem Arabs' hatred of America. Arab ignorance and American policy are equally to blame.

The group of Egyptian men sitting by the Nile in Aswan looked suspicious as my wife and I approached. "Where you from?" one said. "Ana Ameriki," I replied using the few Arabic words I learned in hope of earning respect.

This was 2005, when Americans occupied Iraq, fought insurgents in Afghanistan, and had just started holding islamists at Guantanamo Bay. American popularity in Egypt was near an all time low.

The tension was thick as the men coldly stared and asked "What you think of Bush?" Choosing my few tourist Arabic words carefully, I mumbled "Mish kwayyis awi" -- "Not very good". The men erupted in laughter. The tension disintegrated, and out came the famed Egyptian hospitality.

A few years later, when Obama replaced Bush as president, hopes were high that he would restore America's tarnished world image. Could it possibly be that on our next trip to Egypt, we would not be viewed with suspicion?

Such hopes died last week, when Egyptian protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, tore down the American flag and hoisted a black Islamist banner.1 No injuries were suffered, unlike in neighboring Libya where the ambassador and three other Americans were killed by a mob. Following widespread unrest over an offensive anti-Islam YouTube video, the State Department ordered most embassy staff to evacuate Tunisia and Sudan, and the Egyptians have built a concrete wall to block the street in front of the American embassy.2

The killing of the Ambassador in Benghazi was particularly striking given that American air power saved the city from massacre by the Ghadafi regime last year. Americans are rightfully angry about these acts. Eleven years ago, Arab hatred of America led Al Qaeda to kill thousands in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. In the past year America has helped popular movements topple repressive governments in Libya and Egypt, in Libya with America's direct military assistance and in Egypt with diplomatic support.

What is the point of helping the Arab people, Americans ask, if nothing can temper their hatred? American conservatives have for over a decade insisted that America be steadfast in pursuit of its values and interests, and not try to cowtow to Arab feelings. The events of last week prove that the Obama administration has failed to redeem America in the eyes of the Arab people.

But while Americans see a night and day the difference between Obama and Bush, to Arabs it's a subtle distinction. Yes, Obama did pull out of Iraq. But he broke his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, and continues to command over civilian deaths in Afghanistan and extrajudicial killings via drone attack in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

The Obama administration's squabbles with the Israeli government over Iran, mean nothing to Arabs so long as America continues to give billions in military aid and diplomatic support to an Israeli government that represses the Arab majority under its rule.

In Syria, America's government has shamefully refused to arm rebels fighting the brutal Assad regime, and in Egypt itself, America waited until the last minute of the uprising to abandon support for the dictator it had backed for over 30 years. While Obama's record is clearly better than Bush's, it hardly represents a major change from the decades that came before. In short, Egyptians have little reason to change their minds about America.

Make no mistake, it is Arab extremists, not Americans who are fully responsible for last week's violence. And much of the aanger that fueled the violence is completely unjustified. The degree of ignorance in Egypt about America and the West is staggering. As late as 2008, a poll found that only 16 percent of Egyptians believed Al Qaeda launched the 2001 attacks on America. 12 percent believed the American government did it, and a stunning 42 percent believed it was Israel.3 When people believe such nonsense, how can you hope to explain abstract concepts like free speech or that videos on YouTube do not represent American policy?

America must stand strong for its values both when it is popular in the Arab world (like helping to overthrow the Assad, as it should), and when it is unpopular (like supporting free speech, even when it is blasphemous to religious Muslims.) Right now, the Obama administration is doing neither. It refuses to arm the Syrian opposition. And it turned its back on free speech by applying subtle pressure on Google to take down the YouTube video.

Last week's violence is but a brief incident and not a broad trend. It will blow over. But it serves as an opportunity to evaluate American policies toward the Arab world to reflect on what it is doing right and what it is doing wrong. From both American and Arab perspectives, there is plenty of wrong to be found.

Related Web Columns:

Listening to Osama, November 9, 2004


1. USA Today, Cairo protesters scale U.S. Embassy wall, remove flag, September 11, 2012

2. CBC News, Travel warnings for Sudan, Tunisia amid anti-U.S. violence, September 15, 2012

3., International Poll: No Consensus On Who Was Behind 9/11, September 10, 2008