American Foreign Policy and the Arab World

Remarks to the Summer Institute of the Washington World Affairs Council

I am very pleased to be able to meet with you on this, the first day of a week–long examination of relations between our country and the Arab world. I have been asked to speak about American foreign policy as it bears on this topic.

The US relationship with the Arabs and Islam has grown from a minor concern sixty years ago to become, by stages leading to 9/11, a national obsession. For most of this period, most Americans didn’t pay much attention to the Arabs except when the price of gas went up or the Israelis bombed them or some Arab bombed Israel back. Now our involvement in the Arab world is direct, continuous, expensive, overwhelmingly military, traumatic, politically divisive, highly problematic, and sometimes fatal. We are stuck in what the Bush Administration briefly named “the long war.” This is a war with an enemy we are having trouble identifying and whom we clearly don’t understand. It promises to be long indeed, both because we don’t know how to win it and because we will never admit that we may be losing it.

On the final day of the program, you will hear from a senior official of the Department of State, a dedicated public servant who will tell you what the United States government thinks it’s doing — or at least what it wants you to think it’s doing — to advance our interests vis–à–vis the Arabs. I spent thirty years as an advocate for our country’s foreign policy as it was conducted under seven presidents. I admire the dedicated professionalism of those to whom this baton has now passed — but can hardly tell you how delighted I am to have handed it off. I will let the senior official speak for the government. I will, as usual, speak only for myself.

US–Arab relations have become a tough subject to speak about in polite company. Since 9/11, the Arabs and we have worked hard to vilify each other. Each side has succeeded in blackening the reputation of the other. And, as if the resulting negative political overtones were not enough, the US–Arab relationship is also an exceptionally complex one — to which it is difficult to do justice in a brief discussion.

This is not just because, while the United States is a single nation–state that acts with a single will, the Arabs are a nation of twenty–three politically diverse states that often compete with each other and only rarely unite. Americans and Arabs are also each part of complex larger groupings of people with similar values — in our case, the 850 million–strong community we call “the West;” in theirs, the 1.4 billion Muslims who define the realm of Islam.

We need the oil and gas that the Arabs sell; they need the goods and services that we produce. We are in the main a devout and hospitable people. The Arabs are, if anything, even more so. We are roughly equal in numbers. Like us, Arabs come in all shapes, sizes, and skin and hair colors. We are each united not by our ethnicity but by the common languages and cultures that mark us as members of great nations that occupy wide swaths of the globe. Americans, like Arabs, have a predominant religion — ours, various forms of Christianity, theirs, various tendencies of Islam — but both of us harbor substantial minorities who profess other Abrahamic faiths. Just as most Americans are Christians but some are Jews or Muslims, most Arabs are Muslims but many are Christians and some are Jews.

With so much in common, we should be friends. For much of the brief history of our relationship, we have been. No more. Anyone who cares about and follows US–Arab relations knows that they are now the worst they have ever been.

Well, so what? Does it really matter?

In foreign policy, national interest is the measure of all things. The United States has important interests in West Asia and North Africa that ensure that our relations with the Arabs can have very large consequences for us. These interests don’t go away in response to events or shifting perceptions or changes of Administration in Washington. Let me enumerate six things that are, and will remain, at stake in our relations with the Arabs.

First — let’s face it. We are energy junkies.

Once the world’s biggest oil exporter, we are now its biggest oil and gas importer. We complain a lot about the price of oil. But in practice we seem willing to pay whatever price is on the pump to be able to drive to our homes and shopping malls in the suburbs rather than walk or take public transport around our cities. We depend on the global oil market for imports that meet two–thirds of our demand for petroleum products. In turn, the global oil market depends, to a great and growing extent, on Arab oil. The Arabs now supply one–fourth of the world’s oil; in a decade they will supply one–third. Switching from oil to gas is not a work–around. Arab countries already produce 35 percent of the world’s traded gas. This percentage is set to double in the coming years. Arab countries hold 60 percent of the world’s oil reserves. The world — including the United States — is destined to become steadily more dependent on them for its energy supplies, not less.

This gives the world an interest (as energy gluttons, we in this country have a particular interest) in expanded Arab oil production and exports to meet our energy needs, as well as those of large new consumers like China and India. That, in turn, gives us an interest in peace and stability in the Arab world. Consider, for example, the effects of the anarchy we have created in Iraq. Before our invasion, Iraq was a reliable supplier to the United States and other markets, with good prospects for expanding exports over time. The fact that occupied Iraq is now an erratic supplier with very uncertain prospects is one of the reasons that the price of oil has risen to current levels.

In addition to an interest in access to expanded Arab production of oil and gas, we have an obvious stake in avoiding disruption of their sales of these vital commodities abroad. While other interests may, on occasion, outweigh concerns about the general welfare of our country, it is clearly prudent to try to reduce the dangers of war in West Asia, and thereby to preclude a repeat of the sort of confrontation and resulting energy crisis that occurred during the Egyptian–Israeli war of 1973. Then, the sudden requirement to shore up Israel’s war–making capacity provoked a retaliatory Arab oil embargo. That hit us hard even though our economy was then only about half as dependent on imports as it is now.

Second, we have acquired a clear national interest in achieving the peaceful integration of Israel into its region.

Israel cannot hope to enjoy peaceful coexistence with its Arab and Muslim neighbors through endless military intimidation of them or their Palestinian kin. Nor will the Arabs accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in their midst if Israel rules its captive Arab population under the cruelties of martial law while highhandedly expanding its borders at Arab expense. Until it negotiates peace with the Palestinians, Israel will remain under siege and insecure.

After nearly sixty years of existence, the State of Israel is an established fact, but its future therefore remains precarious. Arab leaders now publicly acknowledge Israel’s existence and express willingness to accept it, providing Israel ends its oppression of the Palestinians and halts its dispossession of them from their homes. But resentment and loathing of Israel among Arab publics has never been so intense. The result is constant low–intensity conflict, punctuated by occasional outbursts of large–scale warfare in which the United States is inevitably implicated. The danger that conflict in the Holy Land will erupt into a global struggle between the supporters of Israel and its foes is also ever present.

Meanwhile, without the personal security that only peace can provide, many of Israel’s most productive Jewish inhabitants have begun openly to contemplate seeking peace and security by leaving the country to find new homes abroad. It is entirely possible that, without peace, the Zionist experiment will wither away, leaving behind it only the bitter hatreds that it and the Arab reaction to it have engendered. In terms of US interests, there is nothing optional about the pursuit of peaceful coexistence between Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel’s other Arab neighbors; it is an imperative. The alternative is not just more violence in the short term; it is the permanent embitterment of the Arabs and the end of Israel in the long term.

Third, as differences between Israel, the West, and the Arabs have come increasingly to be defined in religious terms, we have acquired an interest in the character of the religious order in which Arabs participate.

There are 325 million Arabs — most Muslim, but many Christian and some Jewish, despite Israel’s ingathering of the world’s Jews. Arab Muslims make up only one–fifth of the 1.4 billion member global Muslim community, but they are a decisively influential fifth. The Islamic holy places are in Arabia and the language of Islam is Arabic.

Religion creates a sense of shared identity that can transcend ethnicity, especially in response to denigration of their faith or discrimination, humiliation, or assaults by outsiders on those who share it. Attacks on Arabs, whether Palestinian or Iraqi, are felt by other Muslims. The brutality that has attended the Israeli colonization of Palestinian lands, the many deaths in Iraq from a decade of American sanctions, followed by our invasion and occupation of Iraq, and last summer’s US–approved Israeli savaging of Lebanon are all cases in point. Arab rage at perceived injustice easily translates into Muslim anger toward its perceived perpetrators. Increasingly hostile relations with the Arabs are estranging Muslims everywhere from Americans.

The effects of US policy toward West Asia and North Africa thus spill over to affect our relations with the rest of Asia and Africa, including non–Arab–but–Muslim Iran and Turkey, and Central, South, and Southeast Asia as well as key countries like Nigeria. The United States has many interests in cooperative relations with these countries, not least in preventing them from becoming supporters of terrorist actions against Americans. Consider, too, the energy dimension. These nations hold yet another 20 percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves.

A fourth interest arises from the fact that Arab countries and predominantly Muslim lands like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Iran straddle or abut the world’s major transportation routes.

It’s not just the security of oil and gas supplies that is the issue here, though the Straits of Lombok, Macassar, Malacca, Hormuz, and the Bab al–Mandeb are vital links in the energy trade. You can’t travel between Asia (which is becoming the world’s economic center of gravity) and Europe without transiting these countries’ air or sea space. Our status as a global power depends on the maintenance of a permissive environment for the transit of our armed forces. In military affairs, logistics are key. Our country has a big stake in sustaining cooperative military ties with the Arabs and other Muslim peoples and access to their air and sea space. Hostile relationships with these countries have the potential to cripple our capacity to project our power not just in the Middle East, but beyond it. As an example, consider the difficulties the Pentagon is now having finding a North African Arab country willing to welcome the headquarters of its new Africa command.

Fifth, we have a major economic interest in encouraging the Arabs to reinvest the money they earn from energy sales in ways that benefit us.

More than thirty years ago, as increased oil prices began to flood their economies with “petrodollars,” Arab oil producers made a commitment to plow this money back into the American economy. Both we and they benefitted greatly from this. But, today our posture toward Arab investment is decidedly unwelcoming. Arabs doubt that money they put here can be secure from politically motivated intervention by our monetary authorities or harassment by the army of tort litigators who live off the legal blackmail our system now facilitates. The result has been Arab disinvestment from the United States, followed by the redirection of new investment elsewhere, for example to China. There is even talk about Arab abandonment of the use of the dollar as the unit of account for the oil trade and one major Arab oil producer recently decided to end the peg that had tied its currency to the dollar. Oil exporting countries are now accumulating annual surpluses of $600 billion or more. The consequences for our economy of a change in the role of the dollar in international energy and related commodity markets would be profound.

Sixth and lastly, but far from least, we have an interest in preventing and, ultimately, reducing anti–Americanism, especially anti–Americanism that takes the form of terrorist action against Americans.

It has generally been thought wise in foreign affair to try to divide one’s enemies, rather than to say or do things that unite them. Frankly, as we have drifted into what is now seen among Muslims everywhere as an assault on Islam and its believers, we have steadily broadened the political base of Arab and Muslim anti–Americanism. Al Qaeda and other enemies of the United States now think they have a chance to unite much of the Muslim world to their cause, form a broad coalition against us, and multiply their numbers many fold.

The ignorance of most Americans, even educated Americans, about Islam and the Arab world has made a large contribution to these strategic failures with both Arabs and Muslims. Lacking understanding of those who oppose us, we have reasoned from fallacious analogies with our former foes in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Instead of trying to understand and rebut al Qaeda=s case against our direct and indirect interventions in the Arab and Islamic worlds, we have ascribed to it an ideology that does not exist. “Islamofascism” is a word invented in America, redolent with politically evocative overtones of the European holocaust, and totally disconnected from both Islam and Arab history. Rather than analyzing the objectives that al Qaeda and its allies profess — which have to do with freeing the realm of Islam of our presence so that they and other Islamic extremists can direct its course to the future — we assign to them an objective of world conquest similar to that of our past Eurasian enemies. Our ignorance, confusion, and self-indulgence have led us to impose unfounded stereotypes on Muslims and to mistake Arab friends for Arab enemies — and, no doubt, vice versa.

The great Chinese strategist, Sunzi, once sagely observed that: “know your enemy and know yourself and you can win every war.” Conversely, I would argue, if we continue to contend with imaginary demons and to invade countries to vindicate our hallucinations, we will lose every contest. The consequences of American failure against Islamic militants could be very large. The fact that al Qaeda and its ilk do not much resemble the picture of them painted by our pundits does not make them any less dangerous B just dangerous in different ways. They must be countered by more realistic, appropriate, and effective means than those we are so counterproductively employing at present.

The only good news is that al Qaeda has been almost equally inept. Many of its actions horrify Arabs and other Muslims as much as they do those they are designed to shock in the West, and its doctrines are too obviously deviant to have wide appeal in the Islamic world. Still, al Qaeda has shown that it can learn from failure and adjust its tactics. In the long run, we must assume it will correct its mistakes.

Over time, therefore, Islamic extremists are likely to become more, not less formidable as enemies of both the United States and those Arab regimes that remain aligned with us. In this regard, the deepening estrangement of Arab and other Muslim populations from the United States has very adverse consequences for us. It provides a political environment favorable to recruitment efforts, operational support, and concealment among the people by our extremist enemies. It inclines Arab leaders to shrink from public association or cooperation with us, even against terrorists who are targeting us only to deter us from continuing to support these leaders. It complicates our ability to counter the Iranian inroads our policies in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Holy Land have facilitated. It increases the incentives for the Arabs to accommodate Iran, and it deprives us of the political cover they might otherwise provide for an orderly and honorable end to our military intervention in Iraq.

The causes of Arab and Muslim alienation from the United States are not hard to discern and describe. They are policies that have demonstrably served our interests no better than theirs, or for that matter, Israel’s:

• Our decision to back Israeli efforts to pacify the Palestinians rather than to continue to try to mediate a Palestinian–Israeli peace. This succeeded only in discrediting us as peacemakers without gaining security for Israel, and it empowered Islamist unilateralists among the Palestinians to match the equally unilateralist Israeli government.

• Our collusion with Israel in the effort to isolate and overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government. This first left Hamas nowhere to go but further into the Iranian embrace. It then catalyzed armed conflict among Palestinians, partitioned the occupied territories, encouraged an Israeli effort to crush or starve the Gaza ghetto into submission, and made the prospect of a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two–state solution more remote than ever.

• Our witless transformation of our punitive expedition to capture al Qaeda leaders and chastize their Taliban hosts into a long–term occupation of Afghanistan directed at excluding radical Muslims from a role in governing it. This has turned the Islamic world against our intervention there, conferred new life and undeserved nationalist resistance credentials on the Taliban, and lent unhelpful credibility to al Qaeda’s charge that we are engaged in an anti–Muslim crusade. (It has also had the perverse result of making Afghanistan so safe for poppy cultivation that it is now the source of almost all the world’s heroine.)

• Our catastrophic march into the strategic ambush of Iraq, where we remain pinned down. Iraq is now a country militarily occupied by us but politically occupied by Iran. Our “transformational diplomacy” there has birthed a catastrophic mixture of anarchy and gang warfare, mounting civilian casualties and infrastructure collapse, and an eruption of embittered refugees to every corner of the mostly Sunni Arab world.

• Our continual demonstrations of strategic ineptitude and politico–military incompetence. We persist in an attempt to impose military solutions on political problems in Iraq — thereby precluding political solutions to them — even as we cooperate in Shiite suppression and ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs and thrash about in search of a way out of the mess we’ve made.

• Our apparent plans to perpetuate our occupation of Iraq through the establishment of permanent military bases there from which we can dominate the Arab world. This is the one thing we’ve come up with that has succeeded in uniting Sunni and Shiite Iraqi Arabs — in almost universal opposition to such bases.

• Our open encouragement of Israel’s sadistic mutilation of Lebanon last summer. This cemented Hezbollah’s ties to Iran while transforming it into the dominant political force in Lebanon.

• And our recent efforts to block peace talks between Israel and Syria. This ensures a continued state of war along Israel’s Golan front, continued proxy wars in Lebanon, continued Syrian reliance on Iran, and continued stalemate in US–Syrian relations.

The policies that have produced these disasters for our interests and those of our friends could clearly do with some revision. As I noted, al Qaeda has shown that it has the capacity to learn from its mistakes and correct them. Do we? I wish I could be here to ask the senior official that question on Friday.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Washington, DC

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