They Still Don't Like Us

09/24/2005 12:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A new and not yet released report by a congressionally mandated advisory panel to the State Department supposedly warns that “America’s image and reputation abroad could hardly be worse.” No shit. Meanwhile, Karen Hughes, the State Department’s new public diplomacy chief, is leaving this weekend for the Middle East where she will visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to “start a conversation with the rest of the world” according to the Department spokesman. The plan is for her to be on a “listening tour”, but I’m afraid that Karen’s listening will do little to alleviate any hatred the Muslim world has for the United States.

The truth is, as most Muslims know (and are happy to tell anyone who’ll listen, even in Foggy Bottom), that their hostility toward America will not decrease as long as there is a perceived sense of victimization on the part of Arabs and Muslims. And nowhere does this sense of victimization ring truer than in the case of Palestinian struggle. Like it or not, the Palestinian-Israeli issue really is the primary reason for Muslim anger at America. Perhaps, one might think, the Muslim world has taken on the Palestinian cause as an excuse to vent rage at its own impotence; perhaps the leaders of Muslim nations use it to divert attention away from their own shortcomings, and perhaps the issue even hints at the anti-Semitism that is sadly prevalent in the Middle East; but nothing will alter the fact that the Palestinian cause is the only one that all Muslims can agree on. From Cairo to Tehran, from Tangiers to Peshawar to Jakarta; every Muslim sees America, because of its perceived blind support of Israel, as the ultimate obstacle to a just peace for the Palestinian people. Will Ms. Hughes get the message?

The other major contributing factor to a sense of victimization is the US led ‘war on terror’. While a handful of criminals perpetrated the atrocity of September 11, 2001, the resulting “war”, which has included two real ones, is commonly viewed as a war on Islam and Muslims. The grotesque detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, an unbecoming symbol of American injustice, is a glaring example. Is it possible, Muslims wonder, that these cowering men they’ve seen on their TV screens could present such a threat to the US that they need be incarcerated in cages, far away from their homes and in probable violation of the Geneva Convention? What possible advantage lies in maintaining the camp rather than putting those believed guilty of terrorism on trial and repatriating the others as the Geneva Convention demands after the end of a war? Does Ms. Hughes have the answer?

The Iraq adventure, an extension of the “war on terror” is, of course, perhaps the most obvious example how current American foreign policy is viewed by many as anti-Muslim or anti-Arab. While few in the Arab world mourned the fall of the Baathist regime, our initial refusal to “do body counts” (other than our own soldiers’ deaths) only added to the perception that Muslim lives are somehow less precious than American ones. Well, we don’t do body counts, but Al Jazeera sure does. And guess whose broadcasts of the war Muslims were (and still are) watching? For the U.S. to invade an Arab country (on ever-changing pretexts), kill tens of thousands of its citizens, and then to proclaim that it’s all for their own good is simply not going to fly, no matter who is sending the message; President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or Karen Hughes. Apart from the daily carnage, apart from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and apart from continuing instances of prisoner abuse, Muslims still wonder at what human cost was it worth getting rid of a de-fanged and boxed-in Saddam Hussein? And while we occasionally debate about an “exit strategy”, Muslims wonder how Humpty Dumpty is going to be put back together again, something no one in the administration seems to know or want to figure out, not even Karen Hughes.

But back to the Palestinian question, since it was an existing issue prior to 9/11 and the Iraq war and we know that hatred for America certainly existed then. Americans may like to believe that our government tries very hard to be fair in mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but to the Arabs and Muslims the facts belie this. Americans hear of terrorist suicide bombings that kill dozens of innocent civilians, while Arabs and Muslims hear of Israeli aggressions that often preceded the suicide bombings: aggressions such as targeted assassinations, or military operations that result in the deaths of innocent Palestinian women and children. Although terrorism against civilians should be condemned in every instance, our government often engages in jaw-dropping partisanship when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and often unnecessarily so to no clear advantage to our, or even Israel’s, advantage.

In the past few years particularly egregious examples of this partisanship were held up for the Arab and Muslim world to see. In one, Rachel Corrie, a young American woman, was murdered in 2003 by an Israeli demolition crew on a mission to destroy Palestinian homes. Rachel stood in the path of a bulldozer to prevent it from leveling a home, and eyewitness accounts, photographs and video clearly show her death to be murder. Whether or not one accepts the policy of destroying the homes of families of criminals as punishment (and many Israelis do not), her death was easily preventable by those who caused it, unlike the deaths of innocents who are caught in the line of fire in a war zone. And yet the US government lodged no formal complaint with Israel or the UN, and did not publicly press for an investigation. President Bush, who can feel so much pain for Americans who are victims of terror, had nothing to say about Rachel, a fellow American. Sadly, her death caused more outrage in Israel (admittedly among the left) than in her own country, and to Arabs and Muslims, for whom the Rachel Corrie story was big news, the question was: if America couldn’t care about a Christian American who has sympathy for the Palestinians, then how can it care for the Palestinians themselves? American foreign policy needn’t have changed in order to demonstrate to the Muslim world that America cared about this woman and the people she had dedicated part of her life to helping, but a little concern over her death might have shown Muslims that America hasn’t given Israel all the ‘get out of jail free’ cards.

Other instances of one-sidedness are the automatic US vetoes of any United Nations resolution condemning Israeli actions. One particular case that resonated in the Arab world two years ago was a resolution denouncing Israel’s announced intention to ‘remove’ (and perhaps assassinate) Yasser Arafat, the now deceased but then-elected president of the Palestinian people. The reason given by then-Ambassador Negroponte for the veto was that the resolution didn’t go far enough in condemning Palestinian terrorism, a specious argument as the resolution was put forth simply as a condemnation of a specific announced decision by a member state and not a treatise on the conflict in the Middle East. As far as the Arab world was concerned, there should have been no such linkage. (Imagine if France had used a veto at the UN at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis and demanded that any resolution regarding the imprisonment of American diplomats in Iran also condemned the US for staging the 1953 coup in that country.) Again, the American veto was reported widely in the Muslim world and received scant coverage in the US media. But other than displeasing Ariel Sharon, how would it have hurt our interests to condemn what is clearly condemnable? What did we gain from the veto? A simple gesture by America, even an abstention in the vote, would have gone much further to promote American image in the Muslim world than a hundred commercials of happy, smiling American Muslims, America’s only public diplomacy initiative of the time. Hopefully, Ms. Hughes has some better ideas.

Public diplomacy can only go so far in promoting America’s image or combating hatred without something of substance to work with. America has had and will have the opportunity to provide substance at no cost to its self-interest, but appears unwilling or unable to do so. Ms. Hughes will visit with Arabs in three countries that are allies and where our embassies resemble military bunkers, hardly a welcoming sight, and she will listen. But will she hear? She will be in Cairo, where the recent presidential elections returned Hosni Mubabrak to power for the umpteenth time. The U.S. welcomed the election as a positive step (and Mr. Bush congratulated Mubarak) with only a 23 percent turnout; the banned participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps Egypt’s most popular opposition party (will Ms. Hughes “listen” to them?); and a victory margin of a somewhat suspicious 88.6%. Compared to the Iranian elections (which the Bush administration condemned as “illegitimate” despite a greater turnout, wider ideological field of candidates and a smaller margin of victory) the Egyptian elections were hardly a cause for celebration at the White House. Hypocrisy, anyone? It’s assuredly noticed in Egypt.

Ms. Hughes will also visit Turkey, hardly a bastion of anti-American resentment, but where there are plenty of good cafes and first class hotels. Not too many extremist Muslims, but the shopping is good. In Saudi Arabia, one has to wonder who she is going to “listen” to? The Wahabi Sheikhs who won’t talk to a woman, let alone a Christian one? Or the supporters of Osama bin Laden, who might find it hard getting past her Secret Service contingent?

I wish Karen Hughes all the best in her travels, I really do, even though taxpayers are paying for the “listening tour”. I just hope she’s not listening to the wrong people, or hearing what the administration wants her to hear.