A version of this article was originally published on the Substack “Thinking Middle East.”
The last few days have been filled with articles and op-eds grappling with the many meanings of the United States of America on its 247th July 4. In this article, I share my reflections on the many stages of what the U.S. has signified in the Arab world from the past century till today. The U.S. has cast a long shadow in the region, and relations have gone through many highs and lows. It is important to be aware of this trajectory to better understand the relationship today; and perhaps there are lessons to inform the future of the relationship in the coming century.
World War I and Wilson’s postwar points
Before World War I, America appeared a distant but vibrant and benign entity far removed from the conflicts and imperial contests of the old world. Through the late 19th and early 20th century, it was a destination for emigrants from the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, seeking a new start in a New World. Indeed, in this era, “America” often encompassed all of the Americas, as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, as well as the United States, all seemed on trajectories to promising and prosperous futures. Although Arab intellectuals were more schooled in the political histories and systems of France and the United Kingdom, the democratic and socially pluralistic experiment in the U.S. was gaining in importance, thanks partly to several Arab poets and writers who had settled in the U.S.
The U.S. was also becoming known through the missionary work of some of its Protestant citizens. They came to the region to make converts: Unable to make headway among the Muslim population, they thought they might have an easier time of it trying to convert the local Christians, only to find the latter even more attached to their faiths. Failing in their original mission, they turned their attention to establishing educational institutions. The greatest legacy of the U.S. in the Middle East, up to this day, might be the universities they established, such as the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University, and the American University in Cairo. These schools of higher learning produced generations of leaders, doctors, engineers, and scientists that led and transformed the Arab world over the past century. They remain probably the best investment the U.S. has made in the region.
World War I, and particularly the immediate postwar period of negotiation, was the U.S.’s first coming out as a great power. In the Arab world, it was quite an auspicious beginning. The French and British had promised independence to the Arab forces that had joined an uprising against the Ottoman state, but after the war, the European powers revealed a secret deal they had struck to deny that promise and to carve up the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire between themselves.
American President Woodrow Wilson represented a powerful alternative, laying out a different worldview in his 14 Points, railing against secret treaties and colonial ambitions, and declaring the right of all peoples to self-determination and rule only by consent. This positive American appearance on the Middle Eastern stage was short-lived, however, as the European powers prevailed in the region, Wilson ended his term in the White House, and the U.S. retreated into another two decades of isolation.
World War II and the new postwar order
America’s second coming was also, initially, a positive one. Drawn into World War II in 1941, the U.S. played a more decisive role in that war’s post-conflict diplomacy. In brief, a powerful U.S. faced down its weakened European imperial allies, particularly the U.K. and France, and used its leverage to press them to abandon their imperial mandates and possessions in favor of independence for Arab states. The U.S. enshrined a number of Wilson’s old 14 Points into the charter of the United Nations drafted in San Francisco and set up in New York; a number of Arab countries were founding members.
After these two auspicious starts, the United States, over the next decades, found itself more deeply and contentiously embroiled in the region’s conflicts. The first fault line was the conflict over Palestine that resulted in the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as refugees to neighboring Arab states. The loss of Palestine became a primary driving force in Arab politics, both domestic and foreign, for much of the remainder of that century. The U.S. was resolutely on the Israeli side.
This conflict coincided with the other defining fault line of those decades: the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. The Cold War had a sharp ideological component that the previous colonial competitions did not have, rearranging the region into spheres of influence for the two global superpowers. This ideological component flooded into Arab politics. And in that ideological struggle, the U.S. appeared to side with the conservative monarchies and rulers of the status quo, while the Soviet Union appeared to back the forces of change among the young socialists, nationalists, and communists who sought to reshape their societies. The USSR also made more headway by generally siding with Arab claims in support of Palestinians, against the U.S. position backing Israel. These wounds only grew deeper after the swift Israeli defeat of Egyptian and other Arab armies in the 1967 war, and the occupation of the West Bank. While the U.S. had appeared as an anti-imperial power, a supporter of embattled and occupied peoples, and a champion of political change and justice in the first few decades of the 20th century, the picture had become almost completely reversed by the 1960s and 1970s.
America and the Islamist wave
The Arab defeat of 1967, as well as the lackluster performance of Arab nationalist, socialist, and Soviet-leaning states, quickly drained the largely secular nationalist and socialist movements; in their place, a strong Islamist revival was underway. The U.S. initially favored the Islamist turn, as many of its allies in the region were conservative Islamic regimes, and a conservative Islam had proven a strong bulwark against communist ideology and Soviet power.
President Anwar Sadat empowered Islamists in Egypt as part of his strategic decision to break with the Soviet Union and align with the U.S.; the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, saw little risk in arming radical Islamic militants in Afghanistan to confront the Soviet occupation there.
But the antipathy between radical Islamists and the U.S. would prove far deeper and fiercer than that between secular, socialist Arab nationalists and the U.S. That conflict has colored the relationship over the past four decades.
The end of the Cold War and the troubled American moment
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War had multiple effects in the Arab world. For many Islamists, they attributed the collapse of the USSR to the triumph of the armed Islamists in Afghanistan; and many likened that resounding defeat of one superpower to the defeat of the Americans and the Shah they backed in Iran in 1979, also at the hands of Islamists. For them, the end of the Cold War was not the defeat of one superpower to indicate the triumph of the other, but a defeat of one, to be followed by that of another.
Whereas for many non-Islamists, the collapse of the USSR marked a great undermining of the idea of state-led socialism. The triumph of the democratic West, and the outpouring of democratic fervor in Central and Eastern Europe, generated its own wave of civil society and pro-democracy activism in the Arab world. In this new wave, while many had strong reservations about U.S. or Western foreign policy in the region, plenty saw that democratic political evolution — along a Western model — was the only way forward against repressive autocratic regimes and the zealotry of the religious movements.
A defining moment in this conflicting dynamic between Islamists and non-Islamists was the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. Attacked by an extremist Arab religious movement, albeit based in Afghanistan not the Arab world, there were those extremists who cheered the events as part of the ongoing battle against the superpowers. Yet a large majority was shocked and appalled by the attacks and reacted as they had when religious extremists staged attacks in their own capitals.
The U.S. gained enormous sympathy and goodwill in those harrowing days after the attacks, including in the wider Arab world. Much ink has been spilled explaining how that historic dividend was squandered — not in Afghanistan, which many viewed as an understandable retaliation against the Afghanistan-based attacks — but by the devastating war of choice in Iraq, which proved to be based on false claims, and the tragic mismanagement of the post-war occupation.
Arab uprisings and aborted democratization
Nevertheless, the stirrings against autocracy and in favor of democracy did not wane, and only a few years into the occupation and devastation of Iraq, several Arab capitals erupted in anti-autocratic and pro-democracy uprisings. These were not at all American-leaning or America-related: Both secularists and Islamists espoused a list of political demands, centered on democracy, elections, constitutions, and rule of law, which aligned in many essentials with U.S. and Western ideas of political institutions.
The end of the George W. Bush presidency, and the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the White House in 2008 had resonant effects in the Arab world. Despite all of the controversy surrounding Washington’s foreign policy in the region, the fact that the American public could peacefully and simply evict one party from power and elect a member of a racial minority group — and one with a Muslim middle name to boot! — to the White House proved a great testament to democracy. And this was a time when Arab publics were not only stuck with the same rulers for decades but had no means to remove them or choose anyone else in their place. One could say what one liked about American foreign policy, but its political system appeared quite marvelous.
Here too, the U.S. arguably squandered an opportunity. The Obama administration tried to stay on the “right side of history” during events in Tunisia and Egypt, validating the demands of protesting publics and urging long-time allied rulers to abdicate power; but when push came to shove in Syria, and a regime unleashed its full force against demonstrators, the U.S. president toyed with red lines and robust responses, but he soon backed down and left Bashar al-Assad to his slaughter.
The events of the Arab uprisings were complex, and there are no simple lessons to be drawn. However, those who risked their lives for democratic change in the Arab world — many of whom are dead, jailed, or exiled today — deserved more from the “leader of the Free World.”
The costs of inconsistency and low soft power
The United States recently felt the cost of not having sufficient consistency and credibility with its Middle Eastern partners in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In that moment, the U.S. turned to its regional partners asking for alignment with, and support of, its position, and got very little in response.
The U.S. argument that the world must stand against the illegal invasion of one country by another flew straight up against what the U.S. had done just two decades earlier in its invasion of Iraq. The argument that countries should not be allowed to colonize or annex parts of other countries based on their historical-religious interpretation of their history flew straight up against what Israel has been doing in what remains of Palestine on the West Bank, and doing so while receiving blanket U.S. support and tens of billions of dollars of U.S. aid. And the argument that democracies need to stand together, because democracies don’t invade or try to annex other countries but autocracies do, runs up against the previous two examples, as well as the previous history of the British and French "democracies" rampaging all over the region.
America’s democracy in crisis
The most recent chapter in the changing shape of the American image in the Arab world has been the acute crisis of democracy in America itself. First, party rivalry in the U.S., turbocharged perhaps by social media, generated deep social, cultural, and identity divisions in the U.S. that have been observed with concern around the world. This tugs at a deep worry in Arab and Islamic political history that partisanship leads to division, which leads to civil conflict or fitna. In the wake of the breakup of several Arab states into warring sects and ethnic groups following the Arab spring, the “divisioning” of America seemed to highlight the risks of the democratic path.
Second, the election of Donald Trump, and after him the aging Joe Biden, cast doubt on the idea that popular electoral democracy was the best and most effective way to choose able heads of state; after the electoral system’s impressive record in the past of electing Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, George H. W. Bush and others, all of whom drew wide respect in the region, the American electoral system in recent years appeared to be misfiring. President Xi Jinping in China and (until his disastrous decision to invade Ukraine in 2022) President Vladimir Putin in Russia seemed the more capable and statesmanlike leaders of the time.
Third, the democratic system in the U.S. also seemed at war with itself, when an incumbent President Trump effectively attempted an extra-constitutional reversal of a democratic election — what is otherwise known as a coup. The U.S. is and was always right to denounce coups in the Middle East and around the world. But what to make of an America where a former president who attempted a coup so far has faced no consequences for his actions, currently leads one of the main two parties, and might be again the next president of the U.S.?
The future of a long relationship
Indeed, the image of the U.S. in the Arab world has gone through many ups and downs over the past century. And the image remains complex and multilayered. What I have focused on at the political and foreign policy levels hides a wider and deeper engagement of Arab people and institutions with America’s world-leading higher educational system, its vibrant business world, its high-tech sector, as well as its large role in popular culture through TV, film, music, and social media. But it is also important to note the dramatic decline in America’s moral soft power, from the high “City on a Hill” prestige of the immediate post-World War I and post-World War II periods to the heavy baggage that it accrued over decades of alignment and engagement in the region.
The long path forward would have to begin at home with a rebuilding of a better functioning democratic social and political order in America after the deep crisis of the past decade. It would have to continue through a proper resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a fair and dignified outcome for the Palestinian people and a just resolution of the resonant question of Jerusalem. And on the Arab side, the countries of the region need to make progress toward more open, pluralistic, law-based, and participatory political systems that can exemplify a more lasting harmony between a better America and a better Arab world.
Paul Salem is president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East.
Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
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