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 9:26 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 6:09 PM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT