What Do We Do About the Arabs?

Palestinian refugees following the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut. Sabra camp, September 1982.

When the Middle East is evenly divided between the revolutionaries and the conservatives, our material interests are reasonably protected.

But where Israel is concerned, no Arab leader is secure enough to stand by us while we maintain a posture of favouritism. It seems fair to ask if we might improve our prospects in the Arab world, and indirectly further Israel’s best long-term interests, by a more visibly evenhanded ap- approach.

Evenhandedness, of course. Is not always easy to attain. At times it is impossible. When Nasser announced the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, there was no middle ground. The US had to accept it or oppose it; we opposed it. Similarly, when an intransigent Arab leader puts us in a position that challenges our commitment to Israel’s existence, we have no room for manoeuvre.

But there have been many examples of less inevitable partiality in the past that had already conditioned the Arabs to regard us as completely in the Israeli camp when trouble came. Official government aid to Israel ($1.1 billion), for example, almost equals that given Egypt over the, past two decades — although Egypt has eleven times as many people.

In that same period another $1 billion in private aid, by means of tax-deductible contributions to the United Jewish Appeal, has tipped the balance even more. And while the U.S. government seldom hesitates to threaten the cutoff of aid when Arab regimes displease us, only at the time of the Suez Invasion of 1956 did we use that stick on Israel.

Much as we deplored the Israeli attack in June, we did not employ all the pressure available to us to head it off. The U.S. posture in the United Nations was plainly on the side of Israel.

However compelling our reasons, we abandoned an unconditional seventeen-year-old commitment — reaffirmed as recently as May 23 by President Johnson — to the territorial, integrity of all the states in the Middle East. We also abstained on the Pakistani resolution deploring Israel’s take-over of Jerusalem, although we had publicly criticized such action. Not surprisingly, even the more moderate Arabs were outraged.

Some studies of what can be done to re- store our badly damaged position are under way in the government, but there is reason to doubt that they are as searching and critical as the situation may require. Early in the crisis. President Johnson appointed a special task force run by former White House aide McGeorge Bundy, giving the impression that Washington was taking a hard new look at our policies.

The fact is that Washington policymakers, while they insist they are not complacent, seem remarkably unalarmed. Consoled by what they call disastrous Soviet losses, they discount the view of moderate Arabs that our own losses have been even more severe. They appear to regard Arab emotions as not truly a factor in the equation, or at least as too unreliable to consider in planning future action.

Some speak confidently, and even condescendingly, of how fickle those emotions are. (“Opinion is a very flexible thing in the Arab world,” a responsible official remarks. “An Egyptian journalist once told me that it takes three days to change public opinion in Egypt.”) They count heavily on the traditional divisions of the Arab world and fear of Communism to send some of its leaders scurrying back to us for aid and protection.

They also recognize the formidable built-in political resistance to any consideration of new directions in American Middle Eastern policies. The overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens neither know nor care anything about the “region.

Most of those who do care are emotionally partial to Israel, and many of these are effectively vocal in their support. Few of the remainder can or will make them- selves heard. Either they are dissuaded by fears of being labelled anti-Semitic, or their small voices are lost in the void of public indifference.

This near-unanimous backing for Israel handicaps U.S. diplomats in .the Arab world. In the recent fighting, certainly, Israel benefited from the fact that the Syrians and Egyptians had provoked the crisis and had made noisy threats about their intentions.

But the American public’s sympathy for Israel has been obvious throughout the little country’s history. “There’s nothing we can do about that partiality,” says a former U.S. ambassador to a major Arab capital. “It’s the great embarrassment of the official policy in the Middle East.”

The one-sided attitude of the American public, moreover, reflects more than their sympathetic feelings about the Israelis. Americans react negatively to their image of the Arabs as backward, cruel, largely un- civilized desert dwellers— an image, accord- ing to one Arab scholar, derived from dimly recalled, badly taught Sunday-school stories and unconscious religious hostility toward Islam.

There is no real knowledge to counter the myths. Certainly, there is little awareness of the Arabs’ illustrious history, a fact that infuriates them. And far too often the Arabs, as some of them admit, have been their own worst enemies. Many of their leaders have offended U.S. voters and their representatives. Extravagant language is much admired in the The Arab world, for example, but Americans tend to take it at face value.

On the other hand, we have made no effort – whatever to look at the problems of the Middle East through Arab eyes. To do so is to begin to discern the dimensions of their grievances. There are many — not all of them entirely realistic.

Many Arabs believe we want the militarily weak and divided, which may well be true so long as Nasser remains the obvious candidate to lead a united Arab world.

They suspect we want to retain, through our aid programs and other means, much of the influence of the old colonial powers. They charge that we have brought them into the cold war by forcing Egypt to turn to the Communists for weapons and by labelling neutrality immoral. They complain that our assistance to them is niggardly and motivated not by friendship but by self- interest.

These grievances have long existed, but they have been given special force by the dramatisation of the more serious Arab charge that we are blatantly partial where Israel is concerned. So strongly do they feel about this that many who reject Nasser’s charges of direct U.S. involvement in the war regard our financial and diplomatic sup- port of Israel as almost equally reprehensible.

Adapted from What Do We Do About the Arabs? by Dan Cordtz. Excerpted in an October 1967 CIA brief to the United States Senate. Photograph courtesy of Bill Foley. Published under a Creative Commons license.