THE BLOG
12/04/2014 03:12 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Why Do They Hate Us?

AFP via Getty Images

At a public meeting I recently attended, a woman stood up and asked me a question that gave me some pause: Why do the Arabs hate us so much?

On its surface, hers was a simple, straightforward question, one that I'm certain many Americans have asked themselves amidst regular reports of brutal terrorist activities by ISIS and other extremist groups in the Middle East.

But when you stop to really think about it, the question is rather complex.

Start with the fact that American foreign policy has been squarely focused on the Middle East for decades now. Indeed, the time we've spent deeply intertwined with this troubled region of the world is quite astounding.

During this time, we've been deeply engaged economically, politically and militarily with countries that, individually, present formidable problems. Collectively, countries such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen make for a region that is disintegrating before our very eyes.

The mess in the Middle East is more striking when one considers how much time, energy and money our nation has spent there in the name of nation-building and in trying to combat a seemingly endless list of complex issues: the Arab-Israeli conflict, authoritarian and corrupt regimes, energy security, nuclear disarmament, religious and ethnic fighting and, of course, terrorism.

Try as he might to reset American foreign policy focus (see: President Barack Obama's recent trip to China), no recent U.S. president has been able to disentangle himself from the Middle East. The concerns in the region are just too serious and commanding of our attention.

Which raises the question: Considering all of the time, money and top policy people we have poured into addressing the problems of the Middle East over decades, why is there such widespread hostility toward us?

Why do so many in the Middle East continue to insist that we have "abandoned the region," a common complaint that seems mindboggling in view of all of our entanglements there?

Why do the Arabs hate us so much?

It's becoming increasingly hard for Americans, myself included, to comprehend the anger directed toward us. Maybe all of our efforts haven't been effective. Clearly, many of them haven't been appreciated. But aren't we good people, by and large, just trying to do the right thing? How do you explain it?

Again, the answer is complex. A major part of the hostility we feel certainly comes from our continued support of Israel and a perception, right or wrong, among many in the Arab world that the U.S. can no longer have a balanced view on this issue.

Equally strong is the resentment many Arabs feel toward Western dominance and, more specifically, how America and its European allies have largely succeeded in terms of economic growth and modernization while much of the Middle East remains mired in poverty and high unemployment.

Not to be ignored is just how frequently the U.S. has intervened militarily in the Middle East, especially since 9/11. In every instance of this type of engagement, we would argue we had good reasons for our actions. But we cannot escape the reality that we have interceded again and again and again, to a pretty remarkable degree. Fact: Since 1980, the U.S. has bombed, invaded or occupied 14 Islamic countries.

We know, of course, that several of these military actions have been conducted with Arab support and the ultimate goal of bringing peace and stability to the region. But the perception among many others is that we are too quick and willing to drop bombs, launch airstrikes and send in troops.

Indeed, there is a strong sense among many in the Arab World that we over rely on our military might at the expense of doing more in the areas of education, governance and civil society. They're not impressed by what they view as American incompetence in countries like Iraq and Syria, and they even criticize our rhetoric regarding the advancement of democracy and human rights, citing our past support of oppressive dictators and our treatment of political prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

While I and many other Americans would take issue on a number of fronts with these arguments and perceptions, the fact remains that they exist, are deeply ingrained in the Arab mindset and can no longer be ignored.

At the same time that poll after poll indicate serious Arab resentment toward us, there is no disputing that we will continue to be heavily engaged in the Muslim world for many years to come.

To have a more effective policy and positive posture in this region, we will need to be more sensitive to the Arab world and its perceptions.

We will also have to recognize that we are engaged in a massive struggle for ideas and that our strategy against Islamic extremism must go far beyond flexing our military might.

And we will need to make our message loud and clear to all in the Arab world. We treat people humanely. We abide by the rule of the law. We are a generous and caring people. We offer a vision that will provide for a better future for the world's children, beginning, first and foremost, with a promise of life over death. We believe deeply in the power of education and economic opportunity. We oppose indiscriminate violence. We strongly encourage political participation and tolerate differing points of view.

The Arab world may not like us and may have a lot of reasons why they don't -- not all accurate or meritorious.

But we must be clear and they must know that our agenda is based in a belief in opportunity for all and an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of people all over the world.

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Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.