Dr. James J. Zogby ©
Arab American Institute
When future historians write about America’s Middle East foreign policy during the last quarter century, it must include a lengthy chapter entitled “American Hubris.”
Hubris is our fatal flaw. It speaks to: our arrogance and self-centered belief in our own righteousness; our inability to see others as our equals or to even care to understand how they see us; and our detachment from reality leading to flawed judgments about our capabilities.
The last decade of the 20th century was a heady time. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, we believed that we were the world’s sole superpower. Building on this, we mobilized an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, convened the Madrid Peace Conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then held the White House signing of the Oslo Accords. There was the feeling that all things were now possible under our leadership. It fueled our American hubris.
Two years into the Oslo process, it became clear that peace wasn’t happening. Settlements were increasing, as was Palestinian unemployment and frustration. At Clinton’s encouragement, I sent him a memo outlining the damaging consequences of Israeli behaviors. His “peace team” responded saying, in effect, “Leave it to us, we know what we’re doing.” They didn’t and because of their neglect and hubris, the “peace process” died on their watch.
Clinton also mistakenly bombed a civilian target in Sudan and imposed such extensive sanctions on Iraq that there were reports of hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The administration dismissed both and offered no expression of regret or sorrow.
Then came the George W. Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While the world stood ready to support us in collectively addressing the scourge of terrorism, it was hubris that led the US to embark on a crusade not only to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to reshape them into democratic states that would “help spread democracy throughout the Middle East.”
The hubris of the neo-conservative vision, embraced by the Bush administration, blinded them to their repeated failures. When confronted by an Iraqi insurgency, it was dismissed as “a handful of disgruntled supporters of the former regime.” When major allies in Europe refused to support our Iraqi adventurism, they were scorned as “the old Europe.” And when polling demonstrated that Iraqis were furious with our occupation, the administration deliberately misrepresented the findings to conclude that we were winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. In their hubris, they couldn’t admit reality or failure.
During the Bush years, we polled across the Arab World in order to understand what Arabs thought about America. President Bush had suggested that Arabs hated us, because they hated our values of democracy and freedom. Our polling found that was not the case. In country after country, we learned that Arabs loved our values, our products, our accomplishments, and our people. What they didn’t love was the way we treated them. It was our policies, not our values, that dragged down our favorable ratings across the region.
I met with each of those whom Bush had appointed to run the US Public Diplomacy program. When each asked me: “What should I do first?” I replied: “Listen to what Arabs are saying. You can’t respond to their concerns, unless you know what they are. Be respectful and listen.” Invariably, they did not. Instead, they went to the region delivering canned speeches promoting what they thought Arabs should hear and came home frustrated that their views were challenged. Not listening is born of hubris.
President Obama began his term in office determined to change direction. His Cairo speech addressed our hubris and promised to understand. The problem, of course, was that he didn’t listen or deliver on his promise to listen.
There were a few occasions when I would see him at an event, and he would ask me what our polls were saying. Despite an early bounce in the numbers, US favorable numbers once again declined to Bush levels. What caused this drop in US ratings were several factors: US backtracking on Israel-Palestine, the withdrawal from Iraq surrendering the country to a pro-Iran coalition, and the quiet but feverish push to negotiate an Iran nuclear deal that failed to address Arab concerns with Iran’s regional meddling. The last time he asked me about the polling, I told him about the sharp decline. His response was: “Their expectations were too high.” I replied, “But you were the one who set those high expectations.”
Toward the end of his presidency, he gave a long interview to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine in which he chided the Arab World for not only its failures, but for his, as well. When I saw him, I took the opportunity to chide him saying that I was sorry that the story of his presidency in the Middle East would be “From Cairo to Goldberg.” It was a story of hubris.
The Donald Trump era took hubris to whole new levels, bringing his “only I can fix it” mindset to foreign policy. Trump alienated allies by unilaterally breaking treaties and international agreements. And he proposed a “take it or leave it solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict, leaving Arabs who still needed their relationship with the US to navigate the dizzying US-roller coaster ride he had created.
President Joseph Biden inherited the chaos left by his predecessors. He set quite minimal goals for Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East—most of which remain unfulfilled. His animus toward Saudi Arabia, which plays well with his base, couples an anti-Saudi bias with an obvious double standard—obvious, that is, to the Arab World. The fact that we still claim moral and political leadership in the world, despite our disastrous legacy in Iraq, our blind and uncritical defense of Israel, and our muddled response to the Arab Spring, can only be seen as yet another sign of our hubris.
Much more could be said about each of these US administrations and about US policy in other regions of the world as well. But the bottom line is that our relationships in the Arab World have been distorted by hubris. We don’t know the region, nor appear to care about its peoples, what they want, or how they perceive us and our treatment of them. We see everything through the narrow lens of our self-interest (and, because of domestic politics, that of Israel). It has caused us to blunder, to needlessly insult, and to fail. But, here again, because of hubris, we can’t understand these failures as resulting from our own behaviors and instead find fault in those whom we’ve slighted.