Creating new perspectives since 2009

American Foreign Policy & the Muslim World

May 29, 2014 at 1:41 pm

  • Book Author(s): Ishtiaq Hossain & Mohsen Salih
  • Published Date: 2009-01-01 00:00:00
  • Publisher: Al Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultation
  • Hardback: 422 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-9953-500-65-2

‘American Foreign Policy & the Muslim World’ is a compilation of academic essays and articles aimed at ‘dispel [ling] naïve ideas and misconceptions…about US foreign policy’. The editors were hoping that in compiling this edition, it would equip students within the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia with more understanding and knowledge of how the American political system works and key factors and influences affecting it. Students will find a wealth of information analysing the ins and outs of foreign policymaking in the US and the key players directly or indirectly affecting the outcomes of such policies, be it different influence groups, the media or the effectiveness of US governmental bodies and political system in general, and how these all inter-relate to form perceptions of the Muslim world.

The editors, Ishtiaq Hossain and Mohsen Saleh, take on the mammoth task of trying to explain to the reader the reasons behind the Bush administration’s political actions (or inactions in the case of Occupied Palestine, allowing Israel to continue its settlement expansions and keeping silent during Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006). The editors highlight ‘a kaleidoscopic view of concerns of ordinary citizens all over the world, and in particular of the Muslims’ such as the United States policy of unilateralism under the Bush administration, and its ‘preference to ‘act alone’ in world affairs’, which has seen societies and whole countries alienated or criminalised for not conforming to US policies. America’s ‘war on terror’ is another worry with many equating it to mean a ‘war on Islam’, and questioning the legitimacy and real intention to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Using 9/11 as a means to penalise countries such as Iran for its nuclear development programme and yet turning a blind eye to Israel’s accumulation of nuclear weapons, these double standards are a typical theme of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Hossain and Saleh also suggest America’s support or non-criticism of dictatorial regimes within Muslim countries being a sensitive issue for many critics.

The essays contained in this book are divided into three sections: Part One is entitled ‘American Foreign Policy: The Domestic Sources’ analyses different players effecting the foreign policymaking process in the US such as the Pro-Israeli lobby and Christian Evangelical lobby; Part Two – ‘American Foreign Policy- Characteristics’ looks at US foreign policy in practise over the years and defining moments that have influenced its decision-making today. The final section ‘American Foreign Policy: The Five Legacies’ closely scrutinises foreign policy legacies resulting from the direct and indirect action of American governments including its policies in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

A crucial element of understanding foreign policy is understanding what drives decision-makers. Ultimately it depends on the domestic influences, with authors analysing a variety of sources and shedding light on the key figures effecting the policymaking process. What came across is the amount of influence certain groups or organisations had and how they came about being in a position to influence. Dr Ishtiaq Hossain interestingly highlights that within majority of foreign policymaking institutions, there lies a deep embedded belief that America’s notion of ‘exceptionalism’ i.e. their ideas of liberty and democracy should be ‘brought to darkened areas of the world’ with the global community all sharing a common goal:

‘The possession of immense power and the belief in a universal mission by a nation have the potential to produce great good and great harm…exceptionalism is not considered a burden by the American, but a jet-powered thrust that helped them…to do both well and good for everyone who was not evil in the eyes of those Americans. As a result, US foreign policy frequently tries to have it both way, to assume that America’s national interest and the greater good of mankind are one and the same.’ Chapter 1 p.33

The current climate of anti-Western/anti-American feeling has often been attributed to this apparent arrogance that exudes from Washington. Of course since 9/11, this theme of knowing-what’s-best-for-all has been going into over-drive, especially with the Bush administration’s policies of unilateralism and military hegemony, with ‘the rest of the world having no choice’ but to accept American values of democracy, human rights, liberty and free speech. Those who do not accept these values…are ‘un-American’, as President George W. Bush emphatically stated: ‘you are either with us or with the terrorists’. Hossain analyses the effect of interest groups and think tanks and draws attention to the extent of their influence on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. This chapter sets the scene for the remainder of the essays in this section, with Dr Muhammad Arif Zakaullah delving deeper into ‘The Rise of Christian Evangelicalism in American Politics’ (Chapter Two) , Hossain further analyses the Neo-Conservatives agenda  (Chapter Three) and American policy shift from multilateralism to unilateralism under the Bush administration. Hossain questions whether the President was indeed influenced by Neo-Conservative policies such as its ‘realism’ policy, where the US should turn a blind eye to autocratic regimes as long as it serves US interests.

An excellent and wholly enlightening chapter by Alison Weir on ‘Public Opinion and the Media’  (Chapter Four) revealed the extent of deception the American public are under due to the media filtering what information is made public. She analyses the ‘skewed’ reporting by US media in its reporting of Occupied Palestine providing graphic facts and figures and she specifically looks at certain media information sources such as Associated Press (AP), New York Times and the broadcast media networks. A clear and obvious similarity is the reporting on the Israeli and Palestine conflict with the ‘distortion and omission [of truth being]…of special significance’. The over-reporting of Israeli deaths and under-reporting of Palestinian deaths really makes the reader understand the reason behind the level of ignorance that is inherent within American society on this sensitive issue, amongst others. She quotes one academic, who after carrying out a six-month study found that the National Public Radio (NPR) reported ‘Israeli deaths at a rate 2.4 times greater than Palestinian deaths, and Israeli minor’s …at a rate 4.5 times greater …’ He goes on to state:

‘Apparently being a minor makes your death more newsworthy to NPR if you’re Israeli, but less newsworthy if you’re Palestinian.’ p.126

Weir describes the composition of specific media organisations, showing a clear editor/reporter bias due to their pro-Israeli inclinations, whereby they filter certain parts of the news for the US public. The media sector is saturated with anti-Palestinian rhetoric and it is due to people being unaware, Weir believes, that the US public remains silent. Alternative media are making some progress in rectifiying the imbalance, but as Weir suggest:

‘Until this imbalance changes, it is likely that the US media coverage will remain profoundly lopsided and the American public largely misinformed on Israel-Palestine, resulting in the continuation and perhaps escalation of dangerously misguided US foreign policies- a situation that the region, the United States, and the world can ill afford.’ p. 137

One significant factor, if not the most significant, in US foreign policy is the ‘Role of the Israel Lobby’ (Chapter Five) and the parallel influence (if any) from the Muslim/Arab Lobby (Chapter Six). Pro-Israeli interest groups such as AIPAC have an ‘impressive’ stronghold on US domestic and foreign policy, and through their organisational efficiency they have the ability to effectively influence four key areas: the congress, ’where Israel is virtually immune from criticism’ (p.154); the executive with Israeli sympathisers within the White House and reliance on the ‘ethnic voter machine and ethnic donor machine’; the media, with the majority being controlled by pro-Israel personnel; and think tanks and academic elite. Kopanski and Saleh suggest that it is Israel’s own policies that are making a mockery of US foreign policy, which are saturated with double standards and blatant disregard for human rights and civil liberties p.163. Alongside efficient lobbying by pro-Israel lobby, it is the virtual absence or hesitant lobbying from Muslims that has allowed for Muslim/Arab issues to be swept under. Dr Ahrar Ahmad argues that what little the Muslim lobby has achieved is ‘dilute’ in its effectiveness compared to their pro-Israel counterparts. He carefully analyses different factors that have slowed down their progress and alludes to Muslims lack of experience and intimidation felt by the negative perception of Muslims hindering their effectiveness as lobbyists for Muslims and the Middle East. The author ardently closes stating American Muslims have ‘arrived’ on the political scene and that already their voices ‘have become a constitutive element in the national discourse’ today (p. 190), although one struggles to share his enthusiasm at their progress.

Part two analyses characteristics of US foreign policy and how it has evolved through the century. Dr Elfatih Abdel Salam in chapter seven highlights the defining characteristics of US foreign policy showing how it has evolved through the adoption of different political theories during the 19th Century and Cold War/post Cold War era in the 20th Century. Abdel Salam illustrates how US foreign policy has shifted towards ‘isolationism’ and ‘unilateralism’ over the years and their assumptions of superiority over the rest of the world is what has shaped policies and what continues to shape them today. Dr Habibul Haque Khondker continues this sentiment in his analysis of the ‘new-old empire’ that is the United States today (chapter eight). He suggests that the ‘existence of imperialism proves the feeble nature of democracy in the contemporary world’. All US foreign policies have the underlying theme of imperialistic values, aiming to dominate and ensure the US maintains its status of global leader, however, Khondker insistently argues that America’s imperialistic ambitions ‘is inconsistent with substantive democracy, yet it is compatible with both procedural and sham democracies’ p.219. Similarly to Abdel Salam, Khondker argues that in a world of globalisation, it is important to be aware of different cultures in interpreting the impact of ‘global politics on local cultures’ p.221. It is these imperialistic designs that Khondker claims have resulted in the increase in Islamic fundamentalism.

‘In a word, the world…looks more uncertain, more menacing than what it was at the beginning of the new millennium…it looks particularly menacing because of the acceptance of violence. The Israeli policy was based on a modified version of the medieval ‘eye for an eye’ except that for Israel it is ‘many eyes for one eye’ and this was approved by the Bush-Blair axis.’ p.220

Dr Shahid Shahidullah sums up the section in his chapter looking at ‘The Need for a Paradigm Shift’ (Chapter 9). A fascinating chapter comparing the policies of Clinton and Bush administrations, Shahidullah continuously emphasises throughout the chapter that the rise in ‘radical militant Islam’ should not be viewed as a new religious war between Islam and Christianity as Bush so recklessly used the ‘Crusades’ and Huntingtonian’s ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric in many of his speeches.  He provides an interesting perspective in showing how Clinton’s focus on positive and progressive policies on e.g. global enlargement (globalisation and modernisation) and engagement were pushed aside for Bush’s more imperialistic and unilateral foreign policy strategies.

The final section ‘The Five Legacies’ looks closely at US foreign policy in action, with specific reference to Palestine (Chapter 10) Iraq (Chapter 11), Iran (Chapter 12), Afghanistan (Chapter 13) and then the legacy left behind for Barak H. Obama (Chapter 14), who the editors are quick to point out is ‘not a Muslim’ (p.26). Dr Daud Abdullah’s eye opening chapter, details the establishment of the Zionist state and Palestinian sacrifices made, highlighting the relationship between America and the state of Israel. Abdullah identified the main domestic factors influencing US foreign policy, especially its Middle East policy and suggests that the US has ‘failed’, predictably, in its design to ‘reconcile Israeli aims with Palestinian rights’ (p.287). The relationship itself between Israel and America has become unclear where ‘the distinction between American super power and Israel, its client, has become blurred’. Who is actually making these policies and who is benefiting from them? Abdullah echoes the sentiments of policymakers, academia and concerned citizens, when he writes:

‘While Israel may have been a ‘strategic US asset’ during the Cold War, American writers now believe it has become a ‘strategic burden’. p.270

With the advent of George W. Bush’s presidency, came the revival of old imperialist policies that his father used to establish a ‘new world order’ according to the American ideology (Chapter 11). Bush Sr stated the need for ‘A new world order, a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations’ (p.295), but as Dr Abdul Rashid Moten highlights, it is this unilateral policy that was used to establish America as the world’s sole hegemonic super power. The best example for both presidents is their Iraq legacy. Moten investigates how the US used its corrupt policies to establish its global primacy, showing how both Gulf Wars were key factors in shaping the global community as we see it today. It was on the pretext of liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein that ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ began in March 2003, the US are now seen as invaders and occupiers in pursuit of ‘imperial greed’- securing Iraqi oil and establishing US military bases within Iraq.

Bush Jr and his administration’s ‘axis of evil’ include Iran. The obsession with Iran’s nuclear programme has lead to a lot of ‘misunderstanding and misinformation’ and due to this has become an issue in the international arena. Dr Choudhury Shamim analyses the debate that surrounds nuclear weapons and looks at the role certain Western countries (US, the EU and Israel) have played, as well as other countries (Russia, India, China and Pakistan) in creating this need for nuclear power. Some academics believe that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will in fact ‘stabilise the Arab-Israeli conflict’, others are not so optimistic. Again one almost becomes immune to the US double standards that are in place where Israel is concerned. Shamim interestingly analyses the role the United Nations has played (p. 341-343) and relationships between certain countries in support and against Iran and its nuclear development programme. The lack of dialogue between the US and Iran, is key and needs to be resolved in order for understanding and their general relationship to improve, although the author highlights on several occasions, Iran under President Ahmedinejad have tried to create avenues of dialogue that were continuously ignored by the Bush administration. How wise this is, the author and the reader are left to wonder.

The final blot on the Bush administration has to be the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Dr Wahabuddin Ra’ees analyses how Afghanistan, a country once thought to be ‘of little global importance’ soon became ‘strategically significant’ in terms of propelling America’s unilateral designs. Ra’ees suggests that it is through America’s imperialistic greed that it sought out to gain access to Afghanistan’s abundance of natural resources, as well as curb any threat to its agenda in becoming the one and only hegemonic super power. He describes the rise of anti-Soviet resistance groups and illustrates a vivid picture of the US and its ‘disinterested engagement’ policy that abandoned the Afghans leading them ‘to the brink of [a] humanitarian disaster of unimaginable dimensions’. Like previous authors, Ra’ees ends by throwing caution to the wind and suggests that post 9/11, lessons should be learnt and that America should adopt a more engaging policy and empower the local Afghan communities to develop and administer themselves, warning ‘the US needs Afghanistan as much as Afghanistan needs the US’ (p.374).

The closing chapter briefly analyses the legacy left behind for the new president of the United States, Barak Hussein Obama, who the reader is reminded once again is ‘not a Muslim’(p.382). Hossain looks at how America can move forward to mend its relations with the Muslim world, and briefly summarises Obama’s foreign policies for the countries aforementioned.  With Palestine, he intimates that a more inclusive and engaging policy is required, including an open dialogue with Hamas, the elected government of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He scrutinises Obama’s choices for his cabinet and even though many in the Muslim world are sceptical as to how much change he will bring, Hossain is optimistic and believes that his multilateral and engaging approach can only improve affairs, home and away. As Hossain poetically concludes:

‘Undoubtedly, Obama has his plate full. But one should have the audacity to dream as nothing gets done without it.’ (p. 396)

A revealing and insightful book, ‘American Foreign Policy and the Muslim World’ is useful in that it explains all the different processes and key players in US foreign policy making. Some of the chapters leave the reader with more questions than answers, although that is to be expected on a topic of such complexities. One lesson, amongst many, that will be understood by Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is that in order for the global community to move forward, policies informed by notions of imperialism and hegemony need to be drastically transformed and substituted with policies that are enveloped in equality, justice and self determination.

Review by Samira Quraishy, Middle East Monitor, London