"What we're seeing here, in a sense, is the growing -- the birth pangs of a new Middle East." - Condoleeza Rice, press briefing, July 21, 2006.
"The New Middle East!!" - al-Quds al-Arabi, July 26, 2006
In my previous post, I mentioned in an off-hand way that Condoleeza Rice's remark that the Lebanon war represented the "birth pangs of a New Middle East" had been a spectacularly ill-considered remark. It's not clear whether it was planned - it came towards the end of a Q+A, and she stumbled a bit as she said it. But whatever the case, that remark - like George W Bush's disastrous description of Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" at the height of the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002 - has come to define the Arab view of American intentions in this crisis.
Why was it so disastrous? First, because of the sheer callous indifference to human suffering it seemed to convey. Arabs are inundated with images like this one, day and night:
The best comparison I can think of here is Madeleine Albright's remark on Sixty Minutes in 1995, when she told Leslie Stahl that the death of half a million Iraqi children was "worth it" to contain Saddam Hussein. Fairly or unfairly, this comment - repeated endlessly in the Arab media - came to define American indifference to Iraqi and Arab suffering. Rice's remark is having the same effect: even if the idea that America should try and make something, anything, good come out of this horrific war could be defended, this statement failed horribly to do so.
Second, the phrase "new Middle East" is deeply loaded in Arab political discourse. It immediately references Shimon Peres's vision of a Middle East after a successful peace process. Great, you might think - an optimistic vision! But for much of the Arab intelligentsia, Peres's vision was cast as a dystopian future, not a utopian one: of Israel exercising hegemony over the region, exploiting Arab resources and manpower while stripping away the remnants of Arab and Muslim identity. Again, fairly or unfairly this particular wording touched on a raw nerve, triggering a deluge of negative associations. Rice, or whoever crafted this language, should have known that.
Finally, and most importantly, the "new Middle East" phrasing confirmed in the eyes of a wide range of the Arab public that an American hand lay behind the Israeli war. Whether in op-eds or on Arab TV, everyone is quoting this remark... with hardly anyone defending it or praising it. Some deny that there is anything new in the Middle East - a view expressed by even Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed (the usually pro-American director of al-Arabiya). Nobody thinks that a desirable new Middle East can be achieved through a brutal Israel war. Hossein Shobakshy, a Saudi liberal who also hosts an al-Arabiya economics program, writes angrily that the region does indeed need reform, but not through monstrous violence and brutality. Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor of the Arab nationalist al-Quds al-Arabi, writes today that America lost the old Middle East and won't benefit from the new one... because it is still trying only to extend its hegemony through the failed methods of military power, alliances with the corrupt and repressive Arab regimes, and unconditional support for Israel.
Those are the top three reasons why Rice's "new Middle East" remark was so disastrous with regard to Arab public opinion. I'm sure others can think of more reasons. I just want to say once again that this is the sort of thing which real public diplomacy could have avoided. If a good, well-prepared, and active Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy had been sitting at the policy-making table, he or she might have recognized these pitfalls and offered more felicitous phrasing - and even suggested American policies and rhetoric which would have resonated better with Arab publics without compromising the Bush administration's policy goals (whatever those are). Or, even after Rice's gaffe (if said Under-Secretary made her understand that it was a gaffe), American representatives could have been sent out to all the major Arab TV stations and prominent columnists to explain what she really meant and to put a more productive spin on her intentions. That none of these things happened - that Rice made this gaffe, and then nobody in American public diplomacy evidently even tried to correct it - makes me once again repeat what I said a few days ago: Karen Hughes should quit immediately. Get somebody in as an acting public diplomacy director who is at least going to try.