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Reading about the essay by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I thought, at last! An American official who really gets it — and the highest-ranking military officer, no less.
At a time when the Obama Administration plans to invest heavily in strategic communication as part of “winning” the war in Afghanistan, Mullen writes that what appear to be communication problems are actually “policy and execution problems.”
Diplomats and analysts throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds have for decades said as much to visiting American officials. Polls reveal time and again that Arabs and Muslims like America. It’s the policies they can’t stand.
But Mullen seemed to get it. He was quoted as saying it’s “less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.”
I was on the brink of joining — or even starting — a “Mullen for President” movement. But then, I got a copy of the essay itself and put those plans on hold.
In his essay, Mullen speaks of leading by example, upholding values, listening, building trust, and delivering. But nowhere does he question the actual policies, just some of the most egregious by-products like Abu Ghraib, which he describes as a “‘say-do’ gap.”
The take-home message, as I read it, is that if America builds trust and delivers, then it will earn respect and admiration — and win its wars.
But America’s wars are the problem. And not just the wars, but also the systems of government the United States installs or supports throughout the region.
Most people reject all three of America’s wars in their region: the one against Afghanistan, the one on Iraq, and the one by Israel.
The criminal act of September 11 certainly necessitated a forceful response. But not a war on Afghanistan. In this week’s Nation, David Cortright quotes the findings of a study of 268 terrorist organizations by the Rand Corporation: “Terrorist groups usually end through political processes and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force.”
America’s invasion of Iraq, which never posed a threat to the United States, was deemed illegal by the United Nations Secretary General, whose job it is to uphold the organization’s Charter. Yet the United States is now edging out with no sign of remorse or accountability for the millions of lives it destroyed even as Iraq continues to pay reparations for its own illegal invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
And the United States has spent decades sending military aid to Israel as it illegally occupies and colonizes Arab land. Successive US administrations have swayed before the power of Israel’s lobby in the United States. But they have also used Israel to frighten the Arab region and keep it dependent on America, thus maintaining United States control over Arab oil. Without America’s military, economic, and diplomatic support, Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights would have ended long ago.
America’s wars are the actions that communicate death and destruction and fear and hate. Why is it so hard to get this message across to the United States establishment? Perhaps the answer can be found in two phrases in Mullen’s essay — “our values” and “the Muslim community is a subtle world.”
The concept that there is such a thing as American — or Western — values is a serious impediment to understanding the rest of the world. What are believed to be Western values are actually universal values shared the world over and found in diverse religions and philosophies.
At workshops I have organized for groups of Americans about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I begin by asking what principles and values they uphold in their daily lives. The list invariably echoes the values found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a founding document of the United Nations and the basis of international laws signed by the vast majority of the 192 United Nations member states.
People everywhere share similar aspirations for rights and freedoms. And in every country they struggle against religious fundamentalists — heaven knows the United States is no exception. Others struggle against dictators who seek to circumscribe those freedoms.
Once the concept of universal values replaces that of Western values, the Muslim world becomes no more ‘subtle’ than the United States. The issues are simple to grasp. No one wants to live under foreign military occupation. Would — did — the United States?
Like anyone else, Arabs and/or Muslims will resist occupation. The more they resist, the harsher the occupying forces and their puppet regimes, and the greater the ranks of the resistance. It is not much more complex than that.
Ending those wars and the accompanying support of non-democratic regimes, bringing all the troops home where they belong: That’s what could begin to revive admiration for the United States.
NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.