Skip to main content

Why Arabs don't like the U.S.

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
Egyptians in Tahrir Square hold posters and banners on Sunday expressing love of Americans and dislike of President Obama.
Egyptians in Tahrir Square hold posters and banners on Sunday expressing love of Americans and dislike of President Obama.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron David Miller: Arabs create their own woes, but chaotic U.S. policies play a role
  • Miller: Arabs and Muslims aren't angry because of what we are but because of what we do
  • We back an undemocratic Morsy government and ignore military excesses, he says
  • Miller: We ignore abuses in some nations and blast them in others

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The battering that the U.S. image is taking in Egypt these days reflects that the sources of anger against America in the Middle East run deep. We're not the primary reason the Middle East is so screwed up. The Arabs themselves need to own up to that. Just take a look at Syria and Egypt.

But we are still a big part of the story. Some extremist Muslims hammer us because they don't like Western values; others see the conspiratorial hand of America everywhere -- sucking the life out of Arab and Muslim independence, pride and dignity.

But once you get away from the fringes, what you find is equally disturbing: Millions of Arabs and Muslims don't like us not because of who we are but because of what we do. It's our policies.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

And since those are unlikely to change anytime soon, there's a pretty good chance America will continue to lose the public image battle in the Middle East. And here's why:

Minds and hearts: We've always had it backwards. It's not hearts then minds at all. If you want to capture the imagination of people living in the Middle East and get them to warm to America, you don't play to their emotions first. It's as if a new pretty bow on a package with the same contents as ever is somehow going to help sell U.S. policy. It won't.

First, capture people's minds, appeal to their cognitive self-interest and then their hearts will follow. That would require a significant readjustment of U.S. policy: The U.S. would have to be much tougher on Israel on settlements and practices such as land confiscation, closures and withholding tax revenues in the West Bank.

The U.S. would have to be much fairer when it came to Palestinian issues, including supporting reasonable resolutions at the United Nations and taking positions in negotiations that really did try to find an equitable balance, instead of viewing reality through a pro-Israeli filter. The U.S. would still have a special relationship with our close Israeli ally, just not an exclusive one.

The U.S. would have to be much clearer about standing up to human rights abuses in the Arab world and much tougher on the Arab kings where America is reluctant to offend its conservative allies. People know where and what their interests are. And if we want to improve our credibility, we'd need to find a fairer balance between theirs and ours on many issues.

Values vs. interests: It's stunning testament to the American predicament in the Middle East that within two years of Hosni Mubarak's overthrow -- handled relatively well by the Obama administration -- we are being attacked for backing both Mohamed Morsy and the generals and criticized by just about everyone, even the secular opposition.

You can pick your favorite culprit. The U.S. ambassador, Secretary of State John Kerry's yachting outing, Barack Obama's naivete about the Muslim Brotherhood or his softness toward the military.

But none of them is the reason. We lost our footing in Egypt because the tension between our values and interests results in unpopular and inconsistent policies.

Youths' killing ignites outrage in Egypt
Writer: Morsy unwilling to be inclusive
Tensions high in Egypt
More than 50 dead in Egypt clashes

We back the democratically elected Morsy government, even though it behaves in an undemocratic manner; and when the military intervenes and cracks down, shooting 50 people, we react mildly.

To a great extent, these inconsistencies are a result of the chaos of Egyptian politics, but they also are related to our nation's wariness of change. When stability in the region has been the guiding principle for half a century or more, it's never easy to adjust, especially for the big power. Just look at Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

But more than that, if Egyptians are confused, can't get their own house in order and don't produce big leaders or credible democratic institutions on which the U.S. can find a focal point for its policy, we're going to continue to stumble and bumble around.

We backed Morsy because we believe in the almighty ballot box. And we backed the generals because we have other interests -- the Eyptian-Israeli peace treaty, security for the Suez Canal, counterterrorism, containing Iran -- that commend supporting the military, too. That we couldn't reconcile the two in response to Egyptian realities should come as no great surprise. Nor should the reality that we earn the disfavor of so many frustrated Egyptians.

Great power hypocrisy: Great powers are big and strong enough that they can afford to behave inconsistently and hypocritically. And they do. It's as if it were part of their job description.

But that inconsistency can confuse and disappoint. Our policies toward the Arab Spring are laced with contradictions. We support real political change in Egypt, but we won't push it hard in Saudi Arabia or in Bahrain where oil, stability and U.S. bases reign supreme.

We'll intervene militarily in Libya because it's easier -- but not in Syria, where the strength of al-Assad's allies, military and a chemical weapons capacity make it much riskier.

And in the greatest paradox of all, our ties with the monarchies -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco -- are much closer than with the emerging and struggling democracies at a time when the Middle East yearns for democracy and freedom. It is indeed remarkable that the Arab kings have become our new anchors in a turbulent sea of political change.

Kerry has discovered Jordan as a key ally in this peace process policy. Earlier this year, the U.S. completed a huge arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates worth billions.

Expectations for America run high in the world; and too often we help raise them, particularly in the Middle East. Obama came into office promising a new look in this region: more engagement, a greater sensitivity toward Islam and a pro-active policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

And it's a cruel irony that this putative transformer ended up tougher than his predecessor on drones and Iran and as cautious on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But governing is about choosing. And Obama chose willfully and wisely not to chase windmills abroad but to concentrate on trying to fix America's broken house.

Coming off the two longest wars in American history, where the standard for victory was not whether we would win, but when we could leave, who could blame him. For Obama the middle class was always going to be more important than the Middle East. And for better or worse, America's standing in that region shows it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT