As I attempted to demonstrate in "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying and Why It Matters" we, in the West, are still mystified by the Arab World. Absent real understanding, our public discourse and, too often, our policy debates are informed by crude myths and negative stereotypes of the region, its culture, and its people.
I have noted on other occasions that much the same is true in the Arab World. Having just returned from the Middle East, I continue to be struck by how much of the Arab World's political discussion about American policy is myth-based.
There are two persistent myths that influence Arab perceptions about why and how America does what it does in the world. The first is that they think we are smart—that we know what we are doing and intend the consequences of our actions. The other myth is a variation of the first, and that is that we are all-powerful and can do almost anything—so when we do something and make a mess or when we don't act, there must be a reason.
These myths are both ill-founded and dangerous. Ill-founded because, to be quite honest, we aren't that smart and, therefore, sometimes blunder. And dangerous because they all too often given birth to fantastic conspiracy theories in an effort to make sense out of the disastrous consequences of American policy mistakes.
Both of these myths, after having been given a real run in conversations about the horrific war in Iraq, are again on full display in analyses of US policies toward Egypt and Syria. In discussions about both situations, assumptions are made that American policies are informed and intentional with the resultant consequences having been anticipated.
In the case of Egypt, one line of thought begins with "America supported the Muslim Brotherhood". As it is developed, the argument is made that the US saw (or hoped for) the creation of a "Sunni crescent" in the Middle East as a check against Iran and its allies.
As evidence for this assumption, some point to the simple fact that President Obama recognized the elected Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi, and continued US assistance programs to Egypt. Adherents of this view believe that their case gets stronger when they note that in the lead up to Tamarrod, the US Ambassador to Egypt addressed a public gathering in which she actively discouraged demonstrations, suggesting that political activists should, instead, strengthen opposition political parties and prepare for the next election. A few days later, the Ambassador paid a visit the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters to meet with the group's leader.
Then, after the military deposed Morsi, the Administration didn't immediately embrace the transition and instead sent a high ranking State Department official to urge reconciliation and political compromise. Case closed.
The reality, however, was far more complex. One the one hand, it was entirely reasonable for the US to attempt to work with the elected government of the largest and most strategically important Arab country. America has important interests to protect in the region and sees peace, stability, and progress in Egypt as a key component to those interests. It might also be seen as reasonable that a US official would caution against potentially destabilizing demonstrations and, for the same reason, after the military action of July 3rd, urge the parties to seek some level of accommodation and a restoration of civil order.
Where fault can be found is with American intelligence failing to understand the depth of Egyptian frustration with the Morsi government and the degree to which its agenda had alienated the population. The bottom line is that as difficult as it may be for those who would rather comfort themselves with the certainty of myths and conspiracy theories, America didn't have a clue what was going on in Egypt and was operating in the blind on autopilot. No conspiracy, just mistakes in an effort to protect interests.
I have also been struck by the myths playing out in reaction to the admittedly awkward scenario that developed over the threats to bomb, then not bomb, Syria. It wasn't the "America's smart" myth that played out here, it was myth of the "America, the all-powerful". I have heard too many members and supporters of the Syrian opposition express the conviction that America could, if it wanted to, "take out" Bashar and end his regime. They were, at first, disappointed that the Administration only intended to teach the Assad government a lesson. They wanted much more. But it was never in the cards that America would play the role of "deus ex machina". Their expectations, from the outset were too high and, frankly speaking, not reality-based.
This President was hesitant to act without UN or at the very least NATO support. Even the US military command was not supportive. And then there is the fact that in the dysfunctional hyper-partisan world of Washington politics, Congress had to be considered. This is the same Congress that has voted over 30 times to defund health care reform, the President's signature legislative victory, and still can't agree to pass a budget or keep the nation from defaulting on its debt. This Congress would have eaten him alive had he bucked their will and gone to war without their acquiescence.
An additional restraint that must be factored into this discussion is the war-weariness of the American people. The notion that if America would "just help the Syrian opposition win" ignores the question "then what?" Since it is clear that the deeply fractured opposition cannot, at this time, govern, with the fall of the regime, who will stabilize Syria? The American public will not tolerate a new occupation, and I don't see any other country stepping up to the plate to offer its services.
It was expected that when the "all powerful" myth didn't play out, conspiracy theories would wild. "America doesn't want the opposition to win, they merely want to continue the war to bleed Iran" or "America wants the regime to stay, because they fear al Qaida more than they dislike Bashar, or because Israel wants the regime to remain".
America is powerful, but reality imposes necessary limits on that power. And America is smart, but we do make mistakes.
In this context, I have shuddered when I have heard some Arabs and Americans say "I wish we had Bush back, he never hesitated to act on his beliefs"—forgetting the absolute ruin he left in the wake of his thoughtless use of power that ignored reality.
Both Egypt and Syria pose unique and unprecedented challenges to America and the region. Each poses real problems for policymakers that must be understood, in the clear light of day. Better to see them that way, then to view them through a lens distorted by myths.