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Many Arabs can’t see ‘how good we are’

At an Oct. 11 news conference, President Bush was so intent on addressing the issue of why there is so much hate for America that he posed the question aloud himself: “How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?”

He then answered, “I’ll tell you how I respond: I’m amazed. I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am -- like most Americans, I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.”

This question -- why do they hate us? -- is, of course, essential. Answering it thoughtfully holds the prospect of a peaceful resolution to the war in which we are now engaged. That said, it is, to this point, disappointing that the president, as yet, does not seem to understand the causes of the anger and hatred running through so much of the Arab world.

The following morning Zbignew Brzezinski, national security adviser during the Carter administration, gave a different answer to the same question. In a CNN interview, Brzezinski said the United States should be going after the terrorists and added: “But we have to ask ourselves, what fuels them? What sustains them? What produces the terrorists?”

His answer: “Political rage over a number of issues.”

Brzezinski, who said he receives briefings by the Bush administration, expressed particular concern about Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which he considers especially vulnerable to the rage in the region. They can accompany the United States only so far, he said, “unless we begin to deal with some of the issues [that] animate the hostility of the publics.”

He specifically mentioned “the treatment of the population of Iraq,” adding, “We have failed to remove Saddam Hussein, which we probably should have done early on. But we are punishing the Iraqi people. And that’s where you see massive resentment. I don’t think we understand in this country how resented that is.

“And we are tolerating the Arab-Israeli conflict … in which the Israelis are stronger, so they’re naturally inflicting much more casualties than the Palestinians ... And that produces frustration and rage.”

Brzezinski, of course, does not have the final word on how the United States will deal with the Middle East, terrorism and a growing hatred among Muslims for the United States. However, he has the luxury now of independence from political pressures and wartime demands, and perhaps can be more candid in his assessments than someone inside the administration.

The questions he and others raise widely are critical. Solid answers would suggest a rethinking of American foreign policy, which is, of course, tied not only to U.S. values, but U.S. economic interests around the globe. Reconsidering how we project traditional commitments to human rights and democracy may be easier than overhauling our gluttonous dependence on foreign oil.

From the Arab point of view, the reasons for anger and hatred are many and complex. Some are easily discerned. In Iraq, for instance, we have bombed the country, north and south, almost nonstop for 11 years. We have allowed more than a half million children under the age of 5 to die because of U.S./U.N. sanctions aimed at punishing Saddam Hussein.

U.S. policy toward Iraq has been, at best, confusing. As recently as six months before the start of the Gulf War in 1991, the United States was selling to Saddam Hussein, under license of the U.S. Commerce Department, material for biological and chemical weapons. We knew at the time that he was a despot, that he had abused his own population and brutalized the Kurds in the north.

We armed Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war. Of course, there were times we also armed Iran. For their part, the Iranians remember that for decades we backed the corrupt shah until he was thrown out of the country in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the country and the Islamic state was set up.

The repressed voices of Saudi Arabia know that the United States maintains support for a corrupt regime that sells oil to the West and suppresses prices.

Hungry and marginalized Arabs throughout the Middle East do not know much about “U.S. goodness.” They see us as powerful opportunists and exploiters. Perception shapes public opinion. In the Middle East we are viewed not for our support of human rights, but for our violation of human rights; not for our support of democracy, but our repression of democratic expression.

The editors of America magazine, the Jesuit weekly, put it this way in a recent editorial: “From the beginning, the administration has thought of this struggle primarily in military terms, but the war on terrorism cannot be won simply with bullets. The United States needs the support not only of the elites governing Muslim countries, but also of Muslim public opinion. … This war will not be won in the mountains of Afghanistan. It will be won when Muslims are convinced that the United States acts justly.”

President Bush asked the right question. It will take deep soul-searching and moral courage for all of us to answer wisely.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001