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The Bush administration has spoken often about the importance and urgency of spreading democracy and empowering moderate reformers in the Islamic world. Unfortunately, however, the administration's actions have consistently undermined those goals, systematically alienating precisely those moderates upon whom American success depends.
The president's recent press conference with Ariel Sharon epitomized his administration's failures in dealing with Arab public opinion. Like Bush's description of Sharon as a "man of peace" at the height of the bloody reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002, his public embrace of the Israeli leader last week made news around the world and became an instant symbol of American policy. Not only did Bush fail to coordinate his moves with his Arab allies, but his administration made no real effort to explain itself to Arab audiences or to respond to deeply held, and entirely predictable, Arab concerns.
Instead of demonstrating respect for Arab views or offering a real dialogue about the future of the region, therefore, Bush's intervention signaled little but contempt for Arab opinion. Small wonder that a prominent writer despaired in Al Hayat last week that "Bush has declared war on the forces of moderation in the region."
My article "Taking Arabs Seriously" warned against treating the Arab media as an enemy and argued that new U.S.-backed Arabic language media outlets would be unlikely to have a significant impact. Instead, the administration has only escalated its rhetorical attacks on stations such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Indeed, the immediate trigger of the current Shia uprising in Iraq was the closing of Muqtada al-Sadr's newspaper. Such U.S. attempts to muzzle Arab voices only increase the widespread perception in the region of American hypocrisy while enhancing the reputation for bravery and independence of those who are targeted. It is telling that months after the launch of the American satellite television station Al Hurra the popularity of existing stations has only increased -- even in Iraq, where audiences had long been skeptical of Al Jazeera for its perceived bias in favor of Saddam Hussein.
The consequences of the administration's hostile and manipulative approach to the Arab public grow ever more apparent. Opinion polls show ever deepening levels of anti Americanism in the region; radical forces have been emboldened and moderates isolated. The greatest victims have been those brave souls who have attempted to defend American interests in the region, who feel betrayed and humiliated by American disregard for their sensitivities. This is one of the reasons why the administration's Greater Middle East Initiative, a relatively anodyne and underfunded package of reform ideas scheduled to be presented in June, has been widely shunned not only by authoritarian Arab leaders but also by the Arab civil society reformers who would presumably most benefit from it.
It may well be too late for the Bush administration to undo the damage done by its failed approach to Arab public opinion. Certainly, the administration shows no signs of being open to the kind of dialogue which would be needed. But few tasks are more urgent for long-term American security than restoring the faith of moderate reformers in American credibility.