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There’s No Such Thing as the ‘Arab Street’

Suddenly, Middle Eastern intellectuals are coming to me for ‘ground truth.’

There’s No Such Thing as the ‘Arab Street’

Jonathan Schanzer
15th May 2017 - The Wall Street Journal

Washington has stopped trying to figure out the “Arab Street.” From what I can tell it happened somewhere around Nov. 9, 2016. America is probably better off for it.

I’m not saying we should ignore public opinion in the Arab world. Nor should we ignore its politics. The Middle East, and what happens there, is of crucial concern to American policy makers and interests.

But at least since I arrived in Washington in 2002, the foreign-policy establishment has been on a quixotic quest to tap into the thoughts of an estimated 365 million people. Armed with language lessons, history books and advanced degrees, America’s Middle East analysts labored to understand why Arab populations cheered the 9/11 attacks, jeered the 2003 Iraq invasion, and brought down dictators during the Arab Spring. I was among them, taking trips to dangerous places in the hope that I could acquire “ground truth” that would help in America’s battle for hearts and minds.

 

The only “ground truth” I could ever discern was that the Arab world is a complex patchwork of national identities that are influenced heavily by clan, family, tribe and—of course—religion. The people speak different dialects and embrace different cultures. Sure, there are commonalities among Arabs, but the more you travel the region, the more you find yourself focusing on the differences.

There is not one Arab Street, in the same way that there is not one Main Street in America (consider the differences among New York City, Biloxi, Miss., Des Moines, Iowa, and Los Angeles). Numerous ideological currents run through our 50 states and 320 million residents. Just ask the pollsters who got it wrong in November.

In a rather poetic twist of fate, the Arabs are now sending delegations to Washington in their own quest to glean ground truth. Some have come to visit me. Others have popped in on other policy shops around town. The conversations vary, but the questions are basically the same. With the political sands shifting dramatically in Washington, the Arabs are desperately trying to understand the thinking of the new leadership, but also the thinking of Main Street Americans who were instrumental in bringing about this change.

Can I explain what’s happening in America right now? Probably about as well as the Arab intellectuals who tried to explain things to me over the years. Shifting demographics, economics and religion all play a role. But I have yet to read a compelling narrative that explains the changes that have taken place across diverse populations nationwide. There is no ground truth here, either.

The debate rages in Washington over whether the political change we are experiencing is a change for the better. History will judge. But the shift in our relationship with the Arab states resulting from that change may be a positive development.

America is a superpower. That our bureaucrats and think-tankers should scamper across the Arab world trying to answer the eternal question “Why do they hate us?” was always difficult to digest. It reeked of desperation.

Today, America hasn’t given up on Arab public opinion so much as it has been distracted by its own. But the Arabs should not mistake this for indifference toward the region. Americans detest Islamic State and al Qaeda, and they are deeply alarmed over Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons and regional hegemony. Bitter debates do rage over whether it is in America’s best interest to invest blood and treasure to shape the Middle East, or whether the entire region is a bloody quagmire to be avoided at all costs.

The Trump administration is wrestling with these two impulses right now, after a U.S. Tomahawk missile salvo meant to punish Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons and to demonstrate that American tolerance has limits.

Whether the president plunges the U.S. into another conflict or decides to sit this one out, the Arab Street will play no role. In today’s populist America, the discussion has shifted squarely to what people here believe is in their national interest.

Best of luck to the Middle Eastern bureaucrats and policy analysts trying to determine exactly what that means.

Mr. Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer

Tags

al-qaeda, arab, isis