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In the Middle East, no good deed goes unpunished

Last night, in a series of blogs, I tried to explain the folly of basing, even in part, our policy decisions in the war on terrorism on their effects on the “hearts and minds” of Arabs. I argued that the populations in question view the world through a prism so distorted by hatred and irrationality that efforts to win them over are, in the short term, futile. Some might object that I am painting a cartoonish picture of Arabs. There are, of course, many sophisticated, well-educated, and even relatively moderate citizens of Arab countries. Isn’t it possible to make these people kindly disposed to us through policy choices that are consistent with our national interests?
Perhaps the best way for me to answer this question is by describing my experiences with Iranians. My wife spent many years living in Iran, and I have met many Iranians, nearly all of whom are well-educated. Incredibly, I found a consensus among Iranians of a certain age that the British were behind everything of consequence that happened in Iran through the 1979 revolution and even into the 1990s. This belief stems from the massive influence that the British exercised in the region up through World War II. By the 1950s, the Americans were pulling the strings in Iran, and continued to do so until the revolution, after which, of course, no western country had any real influence. Nonetheless, smart, well-educated, and pro-western Iranians remained convinced that the British were controlling events. This was true, I found out, even of the most influential figures of the Shah’s regime. My old law firm represented the Shah’s son during the 1990s. The lead attorney in the representation, who had gotten to know most of the inner circle, told me that, almost to a person, they were obsessed with the British.
To several generation of Arabs, we are “the British.” If we withdrew from the region completely, we would still be blamed for everything adverse that occurs in the Middle East for the next 30, or perhaps even 50, years. It is tempting, and very American, to believe that by doing good deeds in the Middle East, we can improve perceptions of us there. Liberals and conservatives share this view. For liberals, the good deed is resolving the Israeli-Arab view. For conservatives, it is liberating Iraq and making it a successful, prosperous democracy. These happy scenarios are not beyond the realm of possbility. In my view, however, we should not count on them.

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