Being Blind to the Past Clouds the Future

Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel."

In other countries, foreign policy has long been the domain of the cynic, the sophisticate, the hypocrite. Only Americans aspire to innocence when it comes to foreign policy. In keeping with that tradition, President Bush has insisted in recent months on the perfect blamelessness of past and current American behavior in the Middle East, and the pure goodness of our aggression -- first against Afghanistan and now against Iraq -- with a determined disregard for the complications of history, much less truth.

Bush and his team have repeatedly asserted that the U.S. has clean hands when it comes to the Middle East, and that it is performing a moral duty by going to war against Iraq. No attempt has been made to help Americans understand the roots of our troubled relationships with the nations of the region.

When he issued his final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein last week, Bush claimed that “the U.S. ... did nothing to deserve or invite this threat [of terrorism], but we will do everything to defeat it.” His message was clear: Like the people who went to work in the twin towers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, America is an innocent target of terror. For some unknown reason, bad people have chosen America for destruction. This insistence on disregarding or trivializing our involvement in Middle Eastern affairs -- and what it has meant to the Arab world -- is curious but not inexplicable.

Just after the attack on the World Trade Center, there was a small explosion of articles in the media posing the question, “Why do they hate us?” Obvious reasons were suggested: resentments over the West’s carving up of the Middle East in the first quarter of the last century; the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, where the holy city of Mecca is located; U.S. control of oil in the Persian Gulf; past American machinations in upholding unpopular, autocratic leaders; and, finally, American support of Israel. The articles also pointed to less obvious underpinnings of Arab anger: embarrassment over the Arab world’s comparative lack of success in the modern era, the comparative decline of Arab military power and a precipitous decline in visible intellectual progress after a fabled history of invention, creativity and scientific advance.


American conservatives and supporters of the Bush administration were not happy with such delvings into the past. When the provocateur Susan Sontag wrote in the New Yorker that the events of Sept. 11 came “as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions” -- which is hard to argue with for those who know anything about the Middle East -- conservatives, and even many reflexive liberals, were outraged. A month after Sept. 11, editors at the New York Post wondered: “Has there ever been a culture more burdened with well-paid preachers of self-doubt and defeatism than America’s? ... Indeed, the right response when someone asks why bloody-handed killers like Osama bin Laden hate America is: Who cares?” People think that asking why we are hated is tantamount to saying the attacks were justified.

Since the initial questions were shouted down, reporting on the history of our problems with the Arabs has been minimal in the mainstream press, and the walk up to the war with Iraq has further diverted attention from that history. But failing to ask tough questions is perilous. “Causes of anti-American hatred are not fully understood,” James A. Thomson, president of the Rand Corp., wrote recently, “so the United States has no good idea of what to do about it.... We believe that a careful, systematic inquiry into the causes of anti-Americanism is needed in order to find solutions.”

At least one think tank reports that, while funds have flowed freely to study many aspects of terrorism, no one wants to fund a study that looks at why America is resented. We have been fooled into believing that what we do in our own economic or hegemonic interests is also somehow always good and right and democratic, and we are reluctant to examine those assumptions too closely.

And now comes war with Iraq, and with it a new set of questions about our motivations and chances for long-term success. But those questions too raise issues that many would prefer to leave unexamined. The Bush administration does not want to ask anything that might cause Americans to reconsider blanket support for Israel, or to contemplate in a serious way how deeply the future of the American oil industry depends on the future character of the Arab states. We are not supposed to believe that the war in Iraq has anything to do with the security of America’s oil supply. (Why do they talk so little about this?) Finally, the president doesn’t want Americans to think about how the U.S. has propped up autocrat after autocrat in the Middle East in order to ensure stability, only to discover (big surprise here) that in the Middle East, autocrats engender rebellions, often of a fundamentalist kind (as in Iran).

The Arab world is in transition. Since the end of the First World War, it has become increasingly obvious that the West cannot simply mold the Arab world as it might wish. Even Turkey, the most Western of the Muslim nations, is not precisely what we would desire. Nor is Israel. What will Iraq become if it turns into another of the Arab world’s American puppets? Will it be another failure, overturned by a fundamentalist rebellion, a future kingdom of a future Taliban? Bin Laden encourages terror to counter Bush’s war on Iraq. He sees Iraq, and our war against it, as fertile ground for his movement. He may reason that, the way things are going, one day he will be the new ayatollah of Iraq.

Continuing along the path Bush has set out for us, we will in all likelihood be faced in the future with angry regimes all over the Arab world, unless we are willing to follow up shock and awe against Iraq with shock and awe against every Arab nation that displeases us. Watching Bush describe and frame his inexorable campaign against Baghdad, one is forced to ask: Who is the close-minded believer? Maybe Americans are prepared for perpetual war in the Middle East. That is what Bush’s incurious, ahistorical policy leaves us with: a future of peril and violence into which we have walked blindly.