For the Middle East, the five past US presidents have one thing in common: hubris

A self-centred approach to foreign policy is Washington's fatal flaw in the region

Iraqi civilians and US soldiers watch a statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad on April 9, 2003. AP
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When future historians write about America’s Middle East foreign policy during the last quarter-century, it must include a lengthy chapter titled “American Hubris”.

Hubris is a fatal flaw. It speaks to a certain self-centred belief among too many of us throughout our history 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, Americans believed that they were the world’s sole superpower. Building on this, they mobilised an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, convened the Madrid Peace Conference to resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict and then held the White House signing of the Oslo Accords. There was the feeling that all things were now possible under US leadership. It fuelled 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 then president Bill Clinton’s encouragement, I sent him a memo outlining the damaging consequences of Israeli behaviour. His “peace team” responded saying, in effect: “Leave it to us, we know what we’re doing.” They didn’t, of course, and because of their neglect and hubris, the “peace process” died on their watch.

The military 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 America 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”.

Arab sentiments on the US have historically been affected by a sense of Washington's bias towards Israel. EPA
While the world stood ready to support America in collectively addressing the scourge of terrorism, it was hubris that led the US to embark on a crusade

The hubris of the neoconservative 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 America’s Iraqi adventurism, they were scorned as “the old Europe”. And when polling demonstrated that Iraqis were furious with US occupation, the administration deliberately misrepresented the findings to conclude that Washington was winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. In their hubris, they couldn’t admit reality or failure.

During those years, the Bush administration frequently implied that many Arabs hated America because they hated its values of democracy and freedom. But polling across the Arab world found that was not the case. In country after country, we learned that so many Arabs loved American values, products, accomplishments and people. What they didn’t love was the way the US treated them. It was American policies, not American values that dragged down the country’s favourable ratings across the region.

I met each of those whom Mr Bush had appointed to run the US Public Diplomacy programme. When they 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.

Barack 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 polls were saying. Despite an early bounce in the numbers, opinion on the US in the Arab world once again declined to Bush levels. Several factors caused this drop: 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 Mr Obama 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.”

Towards the end of his presidency, Mr Obama 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 instead, 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. Mr 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 many Arabs who still needed their relationship with the US to navigate the dizzying US-roller coaster ride he had created.

President Joe 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 towards 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 Washington still claims moral and political leadership in the world, despite its disastrous legacy in Iraq, its blind and uncritical defence of Israel and its muddled response to the 2011 uprisings in much of the Arab world can only be seen as yet another sign of 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 America’s relationships in the Arab World have been distorted by hubris. Too many Americans don’t know the region, nor appear to care about its peoples, what they want, or how they perceive America and its treatment of them. Americans, like many others, tend to see everything through the narrow lens of self-interest (and, because of domestic politics, that of Israel). It has caused America to blunder, to needlessly insult and to fail. But, here again, because of hubris, Americans can’t understand these failures as resulting from our own behaviours, and instead find fault in those whom we’ve slighted.

Published: November 09, 2022, 2:00 PM