America? Never!

Young Liberals From the Middle East May Be a Generation Lost to the U.S.

In a conversation with a colleague today, I learned that his son hates America. He does not want to go there – not ever. A native of Libya and educated in Canada, my colleague, is a reflective and insightful man who knows the U.S. from his own travels.

He was clearly disturbed by his son’s opinion of America and wanted to discuss it with me.

So, one might ask, what does it matter what one 14 year old Libyan boy living in Vienna, Austria, thinks? As it turns out, it matters a great deal. This young man comes from an educated family. He attends an international school. His grandfather was an early supporter of the rights of women in the Islamic world. This family can by no means be considered radical. In fact, this young man thinks Osama Bin Laden is stupid.

It is families like these that must be engaged in the process if peace, democracy, and economic progress are to prevail over continued war and conflict in Islamic countries. So I decided to ask the source of this hate.

First on his son’s list is the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and the unconditional support that the US gives to Israel. It is not our freedoms that he hates, it is what he sees as the injustice of the U.S. policy towards the region. There must be millions in the Arab and Muslim world who feel the same way.

No matter how many times the pundits in the U.S. attempt to deny it, the unevenness in our policies towards Israel is a major source of distrust of the U.S. This conflict makes news headlines nearly every day, particularly in the Arab media, as Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories, confiscating their land and homes, and killing innocent civilians. The situation only became worse from the Arab perspective when the Bush Administration refused to demand a ceasefire when the Israelis attacked Lebanon. While it is certainly true that the Israelis have a right to defend themselves, invading a country in response to the kidnapping of soldiers was seen at best as an over-reaction that didn’t accomplish much except to kill a lot of civilians and set the economy of Lebanon, a fragile democratic country, back by several decades.

Second on the boy’s list is the war in Iraq. The daily images of death and destruction, the misery of the Iraqi people, and the failure of the Bush administration to plan for the war’s aftermath and secure the country does not play well in the Middle East – or elsewhere.  Third on his list is that George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Outside the U.S., President Bush is almost universally distrusted. So, people wonder, if Americans are basically good (which I insist they are), how, they ask, could someone like President Bush be re-elected?

This is a good question with no easy answers. How does one explain to people from outside the U.S. how difficult it is for American voters to assess candidates when politicians can spin the facts and play upon people’s fear in order to get elected?  To many, this indicates that America itself doesn’t even have a real democracy – and we come across as hypocritical trying to impose one on others. A better educated American electorate—and an overhaul of its broken campaign system—could go a long way towards solving this problem.

What this young boy’s opinion highlights is a huge disconnect – really a gaping chasm – between the way the Bush Administration tries to portray America and how much of the rest of the world sees us. No matter how much this administration spends on “winning hearts and minds,” it will be difficult to salvage America’s reputation as long as they are in power.

The reservoir of distrust has become enormous. If we lose my colleague’s young son, we lose the world.

Laura Atkins is an American citizen working as a senior research analyst for an international organization based in Vienna

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