Mar 17th 2015

Killing Off Myths

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Some of the myths that drive Arab discourse about American behavior in the Middle East are fascinating for what they say about our relationship with the region. Though often profoundly wrong, they are nevertheless frustratingly persistent. I am writing on a plane returning from the Middle East where I spent several days catching an earful about what apparently too many folks believe America is doing and is not doing in the region, and the "why's" behind both.

What many Arabs understand is that important parts of their world appear to be spinning dangerously out of control and that an intransigent Israel and an aggressive Iran are emboldened and ascendant. What they do not understand is why, in the midst of these threats and challenges, America's role is either absent or less than decisive. And precisely because many Arabs stubbornly hold on to myths about America's wisdom and power, they conclude that the unraveling and the threats must be by design.

The persistence of these notions springs from feelings of powerlessness coupled with an acceptance of elements of America's own narrative. After all, it is we who call ourselves the "exceptional" and "indispensable nation". We proudly note how we emerged victorious from two world wars and outlasted the Soviet Union to become the sole superpower. And we properly boast of landing a man on the moon and of the advances we have made in medicine and technology that have benefited all mankind.

With people in the Arab World accepting our projection of this "larger than life" image, they ask: "if America could do all this: why did they allow Iran to gain the upper-hand in Iraq?; why have they allowed the blood-letting in Syria to go on for so long?; why did they make possible the removal of the Libyan dictator and then walk away leaving a civil war?; and why do they continue to allow Israel to not only run roughshod over captive Palestinians but to do the same in Washington?"

All of this adds up to a dizzying and confounding state of affairs. And so in an effort to make sense out of this confusion it appears that many Arabs have made a leap, not of logic, but of faith. In effect, they have concluded that if the region is unraveling, the bad guys are winning, and all-knowing and all-powerful America isn't acting decisively – then it must be that American policy-makers are either behind this state of affairs or are pleased with it because it is serving their interests.

I have heard commentaries by some Arabs who have argued that the US war against Iraq, far from a failure, accomplished its strategic objective. According to this view, the war was actually designed to remove Saddam, not to create a progressive democracy but to unleash Iran on the region thereby causing our Arab allies to seek greater protection and purchase more weapons from the US. Now this may be what, in fact, has happened. But I do not believe for a minute that anyone in the Bush Administration was clever enough to have thought through and executed such a complex scenario. And yet, because such fantastic explanations make sense out of chaos, they are believed by some.

In response, I try to disabuse my friends of the myths and ask them to recognize the sad truth that my country, as much as I love it, is not always smart or all-powerful. A close examination of the reckless behavior of the Bush Administration establishes this sad fact. Recall that the Bush war planners argued: that Iraq would be a "cake-walk" we would win in three weeks; that US troops would only need to be there for six months, at a cost of no more than $2 billion; that we would be welcomed as liberators; that a democracy would be born that would "be a beacon lighting the way for the region"; and that America's global leadership would be assured through the 21st century.

Instead, the exact opposite occurred resulting in incalculable damage not only to Iraq and the region, but to America, as well. The war showed the limits of American power; its total cost will run into the trillions of dollars; it exhausted our military and destroyed the lives of thousands of young American men and women and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; and instead of ushering in promised democracy, it unleashed a devastating civil war, leaving sectarian Iran the ascendant power in the region, while at the same time spawning the deadly sectarian ISIS. In the end, the war left the region in turmoil and America weaker, and less respected in the world.

It also left most Americans war-weary and the military exhausted and wary of future engagements. Not only did many American Iraq and Afghan war veterans serve multiple tours of duty, at great cost to them and their families, but, as has been recently reported, the suicide rate among these battle-scarred veterans is a shocking and tragic 22 suicides a day!

This was the world Barack Obama inherited when he became president. He also inherited a Washington that was deeply divided. In his inaugural address and in the speeches he delivered in Europe and the Middle East, Obama promised fundamental change. But the promises he made and the expectations he raised, while well-intended, may have unwittingly fueled the myths of America's capacity to "move mountains".

For example, the President committed that his Administration would close Guantanamo, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and engage constructively with the Muslim World. However, he soon confronted the realities of a hyper-partisan and dysfunctional Washington.

From the beginning of his term in office, when Congress passed legislation impeding his effort to close Guantanamo, to Congress' recent shameful, and near treasonous behavior regarding negotiations with Iran – hyper-partisanship has limited the capacity of the President to act constructively in the Middle East. And while hawkish senators make flippant remarks about sending US troops or bombing country x, y, or z, they forget to ask the military if their exhausted and depleted forces can take on another long-term assignment.

So the explanation as to why the White House hasn't been eager to commit US troops or to supply advanced weapons, willy-nilly, to groups fighting in Syria or elsewhere, is not that they have a conspiracy brewing with Iran or that they simply want conflicts to continue. It is because this President, reading the mood of the American people and the military, has wanted to end old wars, while being reluctant to start or get dragged into any new ones.

Given all this, it may still be fair for Arabs to criticize the President's judgment or to decry his failure to provide leadership to a Middle East in the throes of traumatic change. All this can be debated or discussed. But what is neither fair nor smart, is to find conspiracies, where there are none, or to stubbornly cling to myths, which only avoid dealing with realities.

In this context, it is important that some Arab leaders, allies of the US, are recognizing that they must become the agents of change in their own region; that they must take the lead in building a military force to take on ISIS; that they must invest in rebuilding the region's economies; and that they must use their political leverage to resolve conflicts. This movement away from dependency toward self-reliance is significant. As Arab leaders take such initiatives, they have the right to insist that America supports their efforts, as an ally, not as an all-powerful savior. This development presents us all with the possibility of a new US-Arab relationship based on partnership, not on a myth. 

To follow what's new on Facts & Arts
 please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."