Winning hearts and minds in the Arab World

Ali Alarabi

Posted Sep 14, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Winning hearts and minds in the Arab World

By Ali Alarabi

Ever since September 11, 2001, the White House has ushered a new public relations policy toward the Middle East in order to garner grass root support for the US in a region better known for its resentment of US foreign policy towards it.  This new approach toward the Middle East came to be known as the policy of: “wining the hearts and minds” of the Arab world and it was spearheaded by Karen Hughes, in charge of public policy at the State Department; the strategy was supported by Arabic-Speaking officials who frequently appear to the Arab World through Al-Jazeera and other channels. But the White House has neither won any hearts nor any minds in the Arab World. In fact, it is clear we have lost much support in both.

The phrase “wining the hearts and minds” came about after this White House, and in light of the tragedy of September 11, has concluded that years of neglecting the public opinion in the Arab world while depending on the support of Arab rulers, have backfired on the US interests in the region, giving a measure of credibility to the terrorists’ argument that the US supports dictators and oppression, not democratic change or peace in the region. 

The problem here is not just the notion “winning the hearts and minds,” which basically consist of sugar-coated words about “Freedom” “Democracy” and “human rights.” The fundamental flow with this notion is that it is a Public Relations strategy, but little more. This strategy is not accompanied by a real change in the United States official policy toward the Middle East, which is needed in order to make the PR campaign work.

Moreover, it lacks a strategy to make it more credible, portraying the US as a genuine partner in developing democracy and stability in that region. Six years later, however, the White House has made very little progress in the Arab world, if any at all.  The reason being is that, this White House, and the ones before and perhaps the ones that will come after it continues to make Israel a priority in its Middle East foreign policy. This is of course very troubling and problematic for the US and its Arab allies. 

The United States puts Israel at one end of the scale and the entire Arab world at the other end, and almost always Israel weighs more in the eyes of US politicians than the entire region with its huge economic and strategic importance. With an official US policy like this, Arabs are left to believe, and lament, that when it comes to Israel, Arabs are no more than “chopped liver” Israel on the enjoys almost unlimited economic, financial and military support from the United States, support that goes beyond the most basic of American interests.

In the Arab world, however, this support is perceived as being aggressively against their own interests.  For example, official US support for Israel’s war that devastated Lebanon last summer did not help better America’s image. It was the United States that stood int he way of international efforts to bring the fighting to a halt. Neither has the failed war in Iraq, which will continue to be a constant source of condemnation of the US and its allies.

As for the Palestinian-Israeli peace or lack of it, this White House has made its policy very clear from the very beginning, and that it supports Israeli hard line position without reservation, if not identical to it, and that is no serious negotiating with the Palestinians, continuing building illegal Jewish settlements, continuing conducting military raids on Palestinian cities, and installing military check points and blockades that strangle the Palestinian civic life and economic activities.

Moreover, the United States has officially, for the first time, departed from long held US policy position that the United States government should not support illegal Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, a policy position that was in line with international law and Geneva conventions. Taking the US unlimited support for Israel’s aggressive behavior in the region into consideration, and Iraq’s fiasco, one should not be surprised at the high level of resentment and disapproval of the United State’s policies and its image in the region.

So long as these kind policies continue to dominate American foreign policy, the US stands to win neither the hearts nor the minds of the Arab world.  Consequently such policies will breed more resentment and fuel discontent that eventually might manifest itself through violent expression.

The United States government needs to re-think its policies in the Middle East in a way that will make it acceptable both for Israel and Arabs without taking sides. If the purpose of winning the hearts and minds of the Arab World is to achieve peace, democracy, and stability in the Middle East,  is it too much to ask that American foreign policy must try, at least, to be fair?

(Ali Alarabi is managing editor of The Arab Desk at www.  Copyright Arab Writers Group Syndicate, )