CAIRO – As Karen Hughes, the newly appointed head of U.S. public diplomacy, began her first visit to the Middle East last week, an Arab newspaper published a cartoon of the “Ugly American”. It showed President George Bush sitting in front of a mirror, with a thick layer of make up on his face. He turns to Hughes and asks her for more make up and a strong perfume.
The message was: America cannot hide its ugliness. Its arrogance and actions carried out without thought to consequence have made it so unattractive that nothing will turn an ugly face pretty.
If I was a political cartoonist I would have drawn a cartoon showing an Arab standing in front of a mirror cutting off his nose. I would label the mirror “America”. The Arab is oblivious to the blood that flows from his nose and the disfigurement he is inflicting on himself. All he cares about is that he does not look like the image that the mirror “America” has reflected to him.
My message embodies the English saying “to cut off your nose to spite your face”, which means to perform an action – usually to prove a point – that makes you suffer the most. In the case of my cartoon, it means we will do anything to stand up to America and prove a point to America, forgetting in the meantime that ultimately we’re hurting ourselves the most.
And nowhere is this more obvious than in the Arab world’s reaction to the bloodbath that is washing over Iraq.
More than two years have passed now since that invasion of Iraq but too many people –in the Arab world and in the United States – are still stuck arguing over whether the Bush administration was right or wrong to invade Iraq.
In the United States, the arguments often have little do with Iraqis themselves. I rarely see Iraqis on American television speaking for themselves and I rarely read their opinions in U.S. papers. Instead, it is the supporters and opponents of Bush who argue.
The Americans have not even bothered to count how many Iraqis have died since the invasion.
But one thing is obvious: the United States needs help in Iraq.
Here in the Arab world, we don’t have the luxury to argue endlessly over whether Bush was right or wrong. Firstly, it is up to the Iraqi people themselves to decide if the invasion was good for them or not.
In America, there is a blind spot towards Iraqis. Here in the Arab world we have a blind spot of our own towards the Shia of Iraq. Muslim terrorists slaughter fellow Muslims in Iraq but the Arab world – from where many of these terrorists come from – issues weak and meaningless condemnations because it is mostly Shia who are dying.
Terrorists drag Shiite teachers from their classrooms and shoot them dead. Terrorists sadistically lure poor Shia labourers looking for work and blow up 200 of them. Where is the outrage?
But this is what the Arab world forgets: while it stands by wanting the Americans to suffer defeat in Iraq, it is the Arab world that is being defeated by the terrorists who have turned their guns on the Shia of Iraq.
What the Arab world forgets is that those guns can just as easily be turned against the rest of us, just as the suicide bombings that were once used against Israel only are now being used against everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim.
Karen Hughes described her visit to the Middle East as “listening tour”. It quickly turned into a “dialogue of the deaf” with neither side properly listening or talking to the other.
An Egyptian journalist told me an incident that gives me some hope. Of all the people that Hughes met in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the least “intellectual” or elite of them were a group of Egyptian students attending the American University in Cairo on American scholarships. These students are not the stereotypical AUC students who are usually from wealthy or upper class families. Many of the students who met Hughes came from outside of Cairo.
They asked her why America, the world’s only superpower, stumbled so badly after Hurricane Katrina. Hughes – ever the loyal Bush aide – defended her boss but ended up losing the students by getting into the details of domestic American politics that didn’t interest them.
Hughes’ deputy Dina Habib Powell came to the rescue. Dina is an Egyptian American and she understood what the students. She told them that even the world’s only superpower needs help, that we must all help each other during disasters and that the United States appreciated very much the help that Arab countries sent. The Egyptian students loved hearing this and applauded heartily.
I didn’t read about this incident in any of the U.S. press coverage of the meeting.
Iraq is a bloodbath. America needs the help of the Arab world. The Arab world needs America too – how many people insist that America pressure their governments to reform? And ultimately, it is in no one’s interest to see Iraq fail.
So maybe the American isn’t so “ugly” when he asks for help. It is also useful when he or she looks a bit more like us and can make that cultural connection in the way Dina Habib Powell did.
And maybe the Arab will stop cutting off his nose when he realizes that his interests and those of America can actually intersect and that being anti-American for the sake of it is ridiculous and ultimately hurts him more than anyone else.
America and the Arab world need each other.