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9-11 and Arab-American Relations

Just as technology and globalization were changing our world without alarming us and without demanding attention, so did Arab-American relations move through ups and downs, with only occasional headlines when blood was shed. The Cold War was America's international concern. The first (and sometimes only) thing America and its foreign correspondents wanted to know and to report was whether a Middle Eastern country was pro-Western or pro-Communist.

Lost in the process were the realities and the complexities of the Middle East—until terrorism that reached across sea and ocean demonstrated the power of technology and the impact of globalization. Suicidal terrorists personified the meaning of "Anyone-anywhere-anytime" by killing civilians, destroying towering symbols of economic power, and shattering illusions of invulnerability. As with all wars, the war against terror started on one dreadful day. But it was not the beginning of the edgy and complicated relationship between a Western democracy and a complex group of Arab countries traumatized by the arrival of a new nation in their midst that they did not want and could not get rid of.

Middle Eastern countries do not constitute a monolith. The have their own schisms, radical regimes, moderate societies, fundamentalists, Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, modern nation states, and loose collections of tribal alliances set up as governments. This enormous diversity of cultures and countries means that anybody who wants to understand the region, do business there, or fight wars against terrorists or any other group has always found the region difficult to understand and deal with. That makes simplistic generalizations misleading.

The region as a whole is politically and militarily very unsettled, even violent, and seething with more issues than the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. In the past 30 years alone, Muslim nations have fought more among themselves than with the West. After World War II, newly independent Syria was caught in a revolving door of political instability and repression. Lebanon was torn apart by an enduring civil war that broke out in 1975 and led to Syrian intervention. Iraq and Iran have had their bloody conflicts. Iraq invaded Kuwait. From time to time, assassinations have signaled changes in regimes. On top of underlying conflicts within Middle Eastern politics, repeated Arab-Israeli wars have broken out since the late 1940s, punctuating ongoing violence in contested areas claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Because of the persistent warfare in one part of the Middle East or another, a dangerous state of violence and extremism of one form or another persists as a constant feature of the region. Even stable Egypt has experienced terrorism, ranging from the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat by Muslim fundamentalists to attacks on tourists. South of Egypt, Sudan has for years had a vicious civil war that occasionally spills northward into Egypt.

In such a troubled context, focusing just on the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation blurs an overall picture of the Middle East. There are complications enough in that confrontation. Israel sees the end of the conflict in establishment of normal legal national borders and peace, much like liberal democracies do in other countries. The Palestinians claim territory that is occupied by Israel, while Muslims at large consider the existence of Israel an abomination because it intrudes upon their holy places. Neither side has been able to budge, despite enormous efforts on the part of the last 10 American presidents to bring peace to the region. The high-profile role of the U.S. government in pursuing a peaceful solution, as well as its commitment to Israel's survival and its substantial military and economic aid, has led many Arabs to see the United States as siding with an avowed enemy. Henry Kissinger, long experienced in negotiating in the region as the secretary of state in the Nixon administration, recently concluded that "the parties are not ready for a final settlement." He has recommended that low-level negotiations continue in an attempt to bring the parties slowly to some interim peace agreement, with the involvement of NATO countries.

Iraq, Iran, and Africa (of which a great portion is Muslim) present other problems for United States in the region. As the Gulf War of 1991 clearly demonstrated and the ongoing low-level military activities with Iraq remind us each day, Americans can easily get drawn into ongoing conflicts in the region. To argue that this will be the case until the region runs out of oil is to avoid the immediate uncertainties of political and military tensions in which Americans are perceived as intruders, as favoring Israel, even as being anti-Islamic.

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