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Myths and the Middle East

4 minute read
Aaron David Miller

“You Americans just don’t understand us.” Having worked on Middle East issues for almost 30 years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that dismissive comment — from Egyptians, Yemenis and just about everybody else in the region. I’m sure members of the Obama Administration are hearing it too, as they struggle to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and figure out what to do in Syria.

But it cuts both ways: Middle Easterners don’t understand the U.S. either. “You wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in 2003 had it not been for the pro-Israeli lobby,” a well-educated Saudi businessman told me in the summer of 2009, moments after he’d described the U.S. Congress as the Little Knesset. I’d write his views off as those of an isolated crackpot, but the fact is, many Arabs have wrongheaded notions about U.S. politics, and it influences the way they interpret any American President’s policies on the Middle East.

(MORE: Why America’s Middle East Policy is Doomed)

Here are my five favorite Middle Eastern myths about American politics:

The President is the most powerful man in the world
Maybe. But a President’s power is weakened by his having to deal with so many challenges at the same time. Right now President Obama is juggling three big foreign policy goals: getting Syria’s Bashar Assad to peace talks with rebels, developing an initiative on the Iranian nuclear issue in the wake of elections there and the perennial problem of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He’ll be lucky if he gets one of the three.

What makes it even harder is that the President has little influence over many of the challenges he faces. Obama can’t manufacture good jobs out of nothing, win foreign wars quickly and easily, plug an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, shelter America from downturns in the globalized economy.

The White House is Israeli-occupied territory
No, it’s not. The idea that American Jews, in collusion with the Israeli government, hold U.S. foreign policy hostage is wrong — and smacks of anti-Semitism. The historical record just doesn’t support it. Strong Presidents who have real opportunities to promote U.S. interests almost always trump domestic pressure groups, including the pro-Israel lobby. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all pushed Israeli Prime Ministers to make concessions with Arab leaders they would not otherwise make.

Lobbies are evil
No, they’re not. Lobbies advocating causes — from guns to tobacco to senior citizens — are a natural part of America’s democratic political system. If there’s a pro-Israel lobby, there are also lobbies for many Arab states. The latter are less effective, for a variety of reasons — not least the behavior of autocratic Arab governments, the actions of Muslim extremists in the wake of 9/11 and the sense among many Americans that the U.S. and Israel share many of the same values.

(TIME POLL: Americans Believe Country Heading In Wrong Direction)

Second-term Presidents have a free hand
Not by a long shot. Yes, Obama doesn’t have to face the voters again, but that doesn’t mean he’s free of politics. He has a domestic agenda for which he needs to build support. There are midterm elections to Congress in 2014. And he doesn’t want to risk a big Middle East peace initiative that doesn’t have a prayer of succeeding. Only if the chances of a breakthrough in the deadlock between the Israelis and the Palestinians drastically improve would Obama — or any President — spend his political capital on a very public, high-stakes push for peace.

The national interest transcends politics
It’s not that simple. A President will always try to do what he believes is good for the U.S. — but he will also inevitably be pulled toward doing what’s good for himself. In 2010, Obama backed down in his fight with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a freeze in construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank even though it damaged the President’s reputation and U.S. credibility. The reason: the public spat was giving the Republicans political advantage and harming the President’s domestic agenda. That kind of calculation may not always produce decisions that are fair or logical. And that may perplex non-Americans. But that’s the American system; and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as an adviser on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State

MORE: Can Obama Make Israelis Believe Again?

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