The U.S., the Muslim World and Iran

Muslims, especially those in the Middle East, attribute many of their problems (dictatorial regimes, regional turmoil and economic failure) to the U.

Muslims, especially those in the Middle East, attribute many of their problems (dictatorial regimes, regional turmoil and economic failure) to the U.S., either because of U.S. actions or inactions. This is a region where only one Muslim country has had national elections that "might" be considered as somewhat free and open to both male and female voters. This is a region where real per-capita income has declined  (while globally it has roughly doubled) over the last twenty-five years even though many of the countries have had significant revenues (from oil) with little work input. Oil revenues have been embezzled or squandered, especially on the military; and Iran may be in a position to develop a nuclear bomb and a long-range delivery capability. These countries increasingly blame the U.S. for the Palestinian impasse. The war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq have exposed the U.S. to criticism of hostility toward Islam and toward Muslims.  The U.S. has become isolated even from its traditional European allies. During the fall of 2003, in two General Assembly votes on the Middle East, the U.S. and Israel were on the short end by 144 to 4 and 133 to 4. The U.S. and Muslim countries invariably find themselves on opposite sides on high-profile issues. Islam and the U.S. are on a collision course and it sure looks as if the U.S. wants to head towards a clash of civilizations.

The Elements of a New Approach

First and foremost, the United States needs a good dose of humility. The U.S. cannot afford to be intoxicated by its military and economic power. We cannot alienate and fight the whole world. We, like other countries, have no choice but to function in this world as it is and can only change it by persuasion (and not by confrontation and invasion). Phrases such as "bring ‘em on" do nothing to further U.S. interests and only fan the flames. Yes, we have the power to change governments, but at what cost and with what future political and economic implications? We have needlessly created enemies and terrorists with our hubris and with our use of unnecessary feel-good phrases. Humility on the part of the U.S. will go further than anything else to win the hearts and minds of average Muslims in Iraq and around the world.

To regain the respect of the world, the U.S. should disavow regime change and interference in the internal affairs of any country as national policies. Regime change is up to the citizens of a country. Independent democratic regimes come about as the result of internal struggle and not from outside intervention. Another problem with regime-change-as-foreign-policy is that, because of its nature, it will be applied selectively and when it is convenient. This is the painful reality as seen by Muslims. To appeal to the Muslim world, the U.S. must be consistent in the conduct of its foreign policy. It should withhold its support from corrupt undemocratic regimes, which ironically it has not done. Only under exceptional circumstances should regime change be adopted and then only by the world community (through the United Nations) to confront egregious regimes. We must stress that, like the UN, we in the U.S. are committed to protecting the territorial integrity of each and every country. This cannot be an elastic concept.

On a related point, we must emphatically state that we will not interfere in the internal affairs of any country and that we will not support corrupt undemocratic rulers. Even adherence to this simple commitment (which is, after all, what we espouse) will win us considerable support. Ironically, it is for this reason that the Middle Eastern country where the U.S. is most popular is Iran, a country that has had little contact with the U.S. for nearly twenty-five years!

If we want to play a positive role in the Middle East, we must act as an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If we cannot do this, we would be better served by a hands-off policy.

Finally, appreciating the synergy of policies is essential. We need a number of simultaneous policy initiatives in order to succeed. At the same time, it is essential that we incorporate the broader ramifications of each and every policy. Tunnel vision is not a viable option.

In sum, the U.S. needs to do three things to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world: promote democracy in the Islamic world (in deed as well as in words), act as an honest broker (Arab/Israel, Iran/Iraq, etc.), and embrace Islam as it does other religions.

Why Iran is Key

There are a number of reasons why Iran may afford a unique opportunity for at least a good start in the effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslims and to turn things around in Iraq. If it wishes to engage Iran, the U.S. must pursue rapprochement, as opposed to isolation and containment, as its new policy toward Iran.