Arab opinion of U.S. still low

The United States’ standing in Arab public opinion is always going to be low, according to Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Indyk said the image of the United States in the Arab street has plunged even lower in the past four “post-9/11” years, as President Bush has walked away from the Arab-Israeli conflict and simply “stood back” in a hands-off approach.

“We are the hegemon and we are the superpower,” he said. “For that reason, we’ll always generate some level of antagonism.”

Indyk laid out some of the reasons behind Arab hatred toward the United States, saying that double standards or “Arab exceptionalism” in U.S. policy has compounded existing feelings of hatred, which stemmed from centuries of humiliation.

He discussed U.S. double standards such as promoting democracy and freedom while supporting authoritarian regimes, and a push to disarm Iraq while leaving Israel fully armed.

The former member of the U.S. State Department and special assistant to President Clinton explained public diplomacy efforts to an auditorium packed with the local public, U students and visitors from area universities currently here for a Model Arab League competition.

Even after eight years of Clinton’s peace team dedicating “every waking hour” toward resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States received zero credit and no support in the Arab world.

“I feel somewhat burned by that fact,” he said.

Now, even solving issues that affect the Arab public may not decrease animosity toward the United States.

Public relations battle:

U.S. vs. Iraq

Indyk cited historic examples of positive U.S. actions in Iraq that failed to improve the image in the Middle East, such as the containment of Saddam Hussein through sanctions after he invaded Kuwait and the ultimate liberation of Kuwait from the oppressive dictator.

“[Hussein] was the devil incarnate,” he said. “We couldn’t have had a better kind of foe in terms of public diplomacy. We were the good guys, and he was a very bad guy.”

Meanwhile, the United States was embracing Yasser Arafat and the Syrians in negotiations.

“We should have been received in the Arab world as heroes,” Indyk said. “We were defending and promoting Arab interests.”

Instead of bolstering the perception of the United States, all these efforts were offset and overridden by Hussein, who ran a public relations campaign of his own in Iraq.

Not only did the Arab street not like Kuwaitis, but more importantly, they admired the way Saddam stood up to the West while other Arab leaders responded to U.S. demands.

In addition, Hussein organized Arab television broadcasts of hired taxis parading around Baghdad with baby-sized coffins attached to roof racks to illustrate the large numbers of babies dying in Iraq due to U.S. sanctions.

In reality, Indyk said, the babies were dying because Hussein was denying them medication.

At the same time, Western journalists were being required by the Iraqi Ministry of Information to report on the plight of the Iraqi people due to sanctions. If they refused, they were thrown out of the country.

Despite important efforts to patch its image, Indyk said the U.S. government cannot abandon its policies merely to “win a beauty contest in the Arab world.”

Rather, the United States should approach a solution in four basic steps.

Solution

First, Indyk encouraged the United States to walk more softly while “wielding a big stick.”

Second, he said that officials need to listen, not just speak.

Third, “We need to help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict for our own interest.” He added that if the United States demonstrates commitment to the Palestinian problem, it will help take the sting out of the current antagonism.

Fourth, and more importantly, Indyk said is something Bush is currently doing. “We need to remove this Middle East exceptionalism,” he said. “We do need to stand up for the rights of the individual.”

Essentially, Indyk said, “We need to engage the Arab people wherever possible, on every possible level. Beneath all that hatred, there is a deep admiration for our values.”

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