Obama and I belong to a generation when American foreign policy towards Arab and Muslim countries changed fundamentally.
In the 50's, America's anti-communist commitment- when not hijacked by wily Colonial powers- translated into the desire to see emerging nations able to develop their resources so as to resist Soviet sponsored subversion or aggression. This made the U.S a good and dependable ally for those Arab and Muslim countries which had stable governments. Problems arose where corrupt or incompetent monarchies were deposed by revolutionary cells of young military officers as happened in Eygpt, Iraq and Libya. This was because those who rise by conspiratorial politics tend to keep a paranoid world view and so it was difficult for America to maintain a proper dialog with such regimes. However in Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Americans really did help to build up the military and economic capacity of these countries to defend themselves.
Furthermore, they rewarded loyalty with loyalty and were free of color prejudice. The daughter of the American Ambassador to Pakistan married the son of a leading politician and the New York Times printed a banner headline saying 'khush amdeed' to welcome a visiting Pakistani P.M..
The emphasis on Nation-building- including pragmatic advice on things like land reform to boost agricultural productivity- were appreciated by those Muslim nations which had stable governments.
Israel was not a huge stumbling block because France rather than America was Israel's biggest donor. During the Suez crisis, Eisenhower- despite a difficult relationship with Nasser- came down hard on the British, French and Israeli aggressors.
U.S anti-communism, too, was not a deal breaker (as it was for India) because Arab nationalists were utterly disgusted by the Communist party's support for the formation of Israel. There seemed no reason why the Muslim countries could not have Socialism on Earth as well as Allah in Heaven.
However, Arab military or Baath party leaders who had come up through coups, conspiracies and assassinations found it difficult to establish a proper dialog based on national interests and realpolitick with the Americans.
Things started to change during the 60's. A new type of T.V and magazine journalism, which gave higher value to images rather than printed words and detailed analysis, imposed a new type of constraint on Presidential conduct of foreign policy. As against the RAND corp. systems theorists and other technocrats of the 1950's, a new liberal media elite called the shots. The toppling of South Vietnam's Pres.Diem- which had disastrous consequences, or so Catholic propagandists argued- was the first sign that America had abandoned long term strategic goals, such as building up emerging nations so that they could resist communist subversion by themselves, in favor of pandering to the liberal media and Presidential grandstanding on foreign policy issues.
Nixon, who had been Ike's vice president, found it difficult to reverse what had happened under Kennedy and Johnson. In the case of Pakistan, despite genuine liking and a strong feeling of gratitude to the Pakistanis (for facillitating Nixon's rapproachment with China), Nixon was not able to rescue the Pak Army from humiliation at the hands of India.
My feeling is that, in the 1950's, America was represented by hard nosed, self-made men, who were able to apply the new mathematical and other analytical techniques to decision making. They could create long term mutually beneficial relationships based on respect and trust.
The exception here is the case of Iran where Kim Roosevelt was an elite East Coast preppie endowed with superb linguistic gifts but not analytical savvy. Thus he- like Zaehner- was actually an Orientalist scholar/spy in the Romantic English and French tradition. The coup against Mossadegh was the result of clever British manipulation of the Americans. From the start, American policy in Iran was formed on a false basis and smacked of 'Orientalism' rather than the Rand Corporation.
During the '70's, and from then onwards, suspicion in the Islamic world that America was an unreliable friend greatly increased because
1) ISRAEL-America had replaced France as Israel's biggest supporter. The Israelis played their hand cleverly both with the military industrial complex as well as in the wider political sphere. The established links with Evangelical Christianity and also the Mormon Church. As the Republican Party was reconstituted on terms favourable to the Evangelicals- Israel became the be all and end all of American foreign policy. This was because of the supposed role the Jews were to play in 'the end of days'. In any case, a strong pro-Likud bloc was emerging as Jews made the transition from Left Liberalism to the Republican Right. The 'neo-cons' resurrected orientalist ideas, or discredited Hegelian nonsense, to paint a picture of Islamic countries as simply having the wrong sort regime. They were on History's losing side. To save themselves, they must adopt every institution and device of the 'advanced' countries. Islam should be reserved for Holloween.
From the Muslim point of view, the implication of these developments was clear- if a Muslim nation becomes stronger then Israel may feel threatened. America will have to do something. So why let that situation develop in the first place? The best thing to do is to try to make Muslim nations weak, to frustrate their economic development, to sow internal dissension and get them involved in fraticidal wars. All for the sake of Israel.
2) PRESIDENTIAL GRANDSTANDING AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS RED HERRING
Carter's attitude to the Shah was inexplicable. Was he signalling that the Shah should be toppled or the reverse? If Carter wants rid of the Shah, why wasn't the CIA busy building relationships with the opposition.? America was now not just an unreliable friend, it was positively dangerous.
Carter, apostle of peace, facillitated the Sadat-Begin rapproachment. But did anyone think what that would do to harmony within the Islamic community? The American President looks good for a few moments but it is the Muslim community which has to pay the price. The older, 1950's, approach was to have a long drawn out peace process- haggling over treaties, the whole thing being conducted by dry as dust diplomats- so public opinion has a chance to adjust.
True, Sadat had his own Pharnoic complex, he was set on his grand gesture, but could the Americans not have done more to cushion the blow to Muslim sensibilities and Arab unity? True, no one at that time could have foreseen Zawahiri and al Qaeeda and 9/11 and so on. But this is a lesson unlikely to be lost on Obama. Already, in the case of Pakistan, he shows that he understands the long term political consequences of actions he requires and seeks to mitigate such negative fall out.
A further point has to do with Brzenski's notion of creating a green Islamic belt to put pressure on the soft Soviet under-belly. Such a policy smacks of expediency. It does not answer the question of how the region is supposed to recover from a war of attrition against the Soviets. In other words, in contrast to the 50's and 60's, when American troops stood shoulder to shoulder with Anti-Communist forces- here America was telling the Muslims that they were welcome to go and die as cannon fodder but should expect no lasting gratitude.
'Charlie Wilson's War' could not win America any friends since whatever the fictional Rambo might have done- no American blood was shed in this battle against the Evil Empire. It was the high water mark of a type of racism in American foreign policy- an unprincipled instrumentalization of people in a far off country just for the sake of points scoring and national vanity.
3) AMERICAN DIPLOMATIC INCOMPETENCE. First was the Iran-Contra scandal which revealed that American foreign policy was being invented by boy scouts like Oliver North, then we have April Glaspie's mishandling of the Kuwait crisis. Did Saddam get the go ahead to invade or did he not? Actually, he didn't. The mistake was on his side. Still what are we to make of April Glaspie presiding over the next fiasco- Somalia and 'black hawk down'? Is this incompetence or something more sinister?
Another feature of American foreign policy in the 1990's was the ubiquity of 'unofficial' Ambassadors- often from immigrant families who had struck it rich in Hi Tech industries. The added to the noise to signal ratio with respect to the inscrutable Americans.
4) REGIME CHANGE and not just regime change for unfriendly countries but regime change for friendly countries which aren't friendly enough. Why? Oh must be to do with human rights, or elections or something. Anyway, you people are Muslim you will never understand our Judaeo-Christian Liberal Democracy so just take it as read- have a Regime Change, you will feel so much better.
This is like the Trotskyite notion of 'Permanent Revolution'- no, actually, it is like the Emperor changing the Governor of the province every six months. However the political disruption caused vitiates civil society and erodes the last barriers remaining against a descent into utter chaos.
Obama is free from anti-Muslim prejudice. He wants dialog on the basis of long term interests. He is addressing concerns such as those mentioned earlier.
Unfortunately he's been given a Nobel Peace Prize. Fate- being fond of that particular joke- will ensure that he fails spectacularly.
Except it won't really be his failure. That harvest was planted long ago.