Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
January 13, 2010 - 1:00am

I am often asked why I maintain the slightly naive expectation that the United States will one day pursue policies in the Middle East that are fair to all in the region, and also comply with international law and core American values. My answer is, in part, Denise Horn’s Globalization and International Affairs class INTL 1101 at Northeastern University in Boston.

Every autumn I spend a few weeks at Northeastern University giving a few lectures, exchanging thoughts with students and faculty, and monitoring the ever-evolving range and quality of fruit smoothies on Huntington Avenue in central Boston. On all three counts, I am always enriched in mind, spirit and body. I inevitably come away from the experience energized by the common sense, basic decency, and fairness of ordinary Americans, who speak about the Middle East in an open, honest context, free from frenzied ideological manipulation.

Every year Denise Horn asks her students to submit questions for our class discussion. The range of questions about the United States and the Middle East is a striking affirmation of four elements that make the experience so satisfying for me: the inquisitiveness of youth; their sense of responsibility about how their government acts around the world; their quest to probe and understand the underlying reasons for the tensions that define many aspects of US-Middle Eastern relations; and, their desire to explore how their country can act most responsibly and constructively in the world.

I know that the several hundred students in the class are not fully representative of all US citizens, but they get pretty close, to judge by the many ethnicities, races, religions and ideological sentiments they represent. The substance and style of the questions this time around were striking and refreshing. They were striking because they almost always hit the central issues of any matter under discussion, without being diverted by ideological nonsense: What are the essential elements of an Arab-Israeli compromise agreement? Do tensions in Arab societies reflect local problems or stresses from globalization? Does American foreign policy aggravate or reduce autocratic governance in the Middle East? Is President Barack Obama’s approach to the region promoting or retarding Arab-Israeli peace? Does he deserve his Nobel Peace Prize? What can average citizens do to promote peace and stability in the Middle East? Should the US and the international community push for upholding international law and prosecuting leaders in the region who are accused of war crimes?

The tone of the questions was refreshing because they were just that, questions, rather than the ideological fire hose blasts that often emanate from Americans who speak about the Middle East. The students reflect the best of American intellectual and political traditions as I know them: They appreciate that a problem or conflict exists; they ask many questions to try and grasp the facts and nuances of the matter; and they use the knowledge gathered to explore possible resolutions, with their country and government playing a positive role aiming to resolve the conflicts and reduce tensions.

The students and I do not always end with agreement or consensus, but we discuss the issues in a way that allows all views to be heard, where everyone can grasp and address the legitimate concerns of all parties.

This dynamic is repeated every day in a thousand classrooms around the US, I am sure. It is an important reminder that the sentiments and values of ordinary Americans are strong, sensitive and fair-minded. That’s the good news; the downside is that these sentiments also seem largely divorced from foreign policy decision-making in Washington. The point is, democracies function best when they faithfully reflect the sentiments and values of their citizens. This is often the case with American foreign policy (as in the current American slow withdrawal from Iraq). However, US policy toward the Arabs and Israel is usually an exception that largely fails to take on the qualities of common decency and sense of fairness of the American people.

Rather, US policy in this realm is largely distorted by pro-Israel groups, Christian fundamentalist, and other extremist forces that broadly assume that Israel is good and that its needs must get priority treatment, while Arabs are suspect and they have to prove themselves and acquiesce to Israeli right-wing demands before being seriously engaged diplomatically. Public opinion polling by the respected Zogby firm and others in the US repeatedly shows that – unlike Washington’s skewed track record – the American public wants the government to take an evenhanded approach that affirms the simultaneous rights of Arabs and Israelis.

It is refreshing to confirm this now and then by engaging a cross-section of ordinary Americans who remind us why so many people around the world still admire the United States and look forward to the day when, like my jaunts along Huntington Avenue in Boston, its foreign policy also is fortified by the core strengths and decencies of its citizens.


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