Getting it Wrong: American Misperceptions of the Middle East
Dan Schueftan and Aaron David Miller discussed the United States’ misperceptions of the Middle East and the policies that result from such perception and their impact on the region as a whole.
On June 6, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a meeting, “Getting it Wrong: American Misperception of the Middle East,” with Schueftan, Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives at the Wilson Center, provided commentary, and Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program, moderated the event.
Schueftan discussed the common characteristics of American misperceptions of the Middle East and listed examples of policies by different U.S. administrations that have had negative consequences for the Middle East as well as the United States. He stated that the main false assumption is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is the most important issue in the Middle East and that resolving it would have a positive impact on the region as a whole. He noted that the key issues in the Middle East at the moment such as Iran’s nuclear program and development in Egypt are unrelated to the peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. According to Schueftan, such misperceptions result from a misreading of the cultural dimension, which is “the most crucial element in understanding the region.”
He stated that in developing policies it is important to consider the tribal-oriented nature of many Arab societies and take into account not only Arab state radicalism, but also the radicalism of Arab societies or “the Arab street.” Schueftan argued that despite widespread American assumptions that the solution to the problems in these societies is to replace authoritarianism with pluralism, in fact, in many cases, the society is more radical than the state; thus, what the United States is confronted with in the Middle East is a “cultural” predicament. In his concluding remarks, Schueftan stated that what current American policies toward the Middle East have managed to accomplish is “taking care of the symptoms rather than the problem.” He asserted that the United States has to realize that “the problem cannot be solved from the outside and the solution has to be indigenous,” therefore, it should give up the idea of social and political engineering in the region and, instead, focus on deterring radicalism and examining strategic interests in terms of power balances.
For Miller, American misperceptions and mistakes do not originate from the inability to understand Arab political culture, but, rather, from Americans’ unwillingness or inability to be honest with their own worldviews. According to Miller, American perceptions are highly influenced by the country’s geographic location—with non-predatory countries to the north and south—and great power, creating the idea that all conflicts have solutions. Miller noted that the United States is in a “terrible position” with regard to the Middle East because it has found itself unable to solve the region’s problems. In addition, he argued that in his view the American resentment in the Middle East is “a clash of interest” rather than a clash of civilizations. To put the region’s problems in perspective, Miller concluded by saying that it took Americans 150 years to realize some of the promises in the Declaration of Independence, adding that the Middle East, by contrast, currently lacks the necessary elements for an open society: objectivity and inclusivity by its leadership. However, he ended by saying, “I believe that life is not predictable and things can change and time is the only arbiter.”
By Afarin Dadkhah, Middle East Program
Aaron and Cecile Goldman Visiting Professor of Government, Georgetown University
Aaron David Miller // Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished ScholarHistorian, analyst, negotiator, and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 1978-2003.