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Opinion: Defining a constructive role in the Middle East

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) welcomes his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez in Damascus on Oct. 21, 2010. The two leaders are regularly ranked among the most popular in the world by Arabs. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — One of the most commonly used phrases when describing a certain party’s role in the Middle East is whether or not it is “constructive.” American officials have a special affinity for this phrase, particularly when referring to players whom they disagree with.

Syria is a case in point. Those who are pro-engagement with Syria defend engagement as a tool to make it play a more “constructive role.” Meanwhile, the anti-engagement crowd argues that such efforts are futile, and unwarranted, because Syria’s role is “not constructive.”

Yet, no one has defined what this all-too-ubiquitous “constructive role” entails.

We do know what it does not entail. Invading a country in the Middle East, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the displacement of millions, and engendering an all-too contagious sectarianism is not constructive. Turning a blind eye to the daily deaths of Palestinians, the building of illegal settlements, the world’s largest nuclear arms arsenal per capita, and the establishment of the only current apartheid state is not constructive. Brokering peace between two sides while arming one with billions of dollars worth of weapons and preventing the other from having a mere functioning state is not constructive. Continually fomenting sectarianism in Lebanon and historically favoring one side over another, all the while criticizing others for not playing a constructive role, well, is not constructive.

As people of the Middle East we cannot logically expect the United States to view its interests through our lens. Similarly, the United States cannot define what is ‘constructive’ in our region while completely neglecting our interests.

Every year, the University of Maryland, in conjunction with Zogby International, conducts an opinion survey in six Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Incidentally, these countries all have pro-American governments.

The results of the poll are very telling and can serve as a barometer for those trying to truly understand what the people view as ‘constructive’ or not.

Eighty-five percent of those surveyed have either a somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable attitude towards the United States; 63 percent are disappointed with U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy; 78 percent believe Iran has a right to a nuclear program; 88 percent and 77 percent respectively say that Israel and the United States pose the greatest threat; and when asked to rank their world’s favorite leader, the top five were: Erdogan, Chavez, Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, and Assad — not really a pro-American list.

Most importantly, when asked which country plays the most constructive role in the region, the United States came in dead last.

Of course, the reader does not require this essay or these poll results to discover that there is a deep anti-American sentiment in the region and around the world. The aim here is to highlight the irony, audacity, and indeed absurdity of having the foreign power viewed by the indigenous people as playing the least constructive role, define for those same people what is "constructive."

On the other hand, the results of this survey indicate that Syria’s policies most reflect the aspirations and demands of the Arab street — clearly evident in President Assad ranking the highest among Arab heads-of-state, year in, year out. In light of these inexorable facts, American officials should, indeed, reconsider questioning Syria’s “constructive role” in the region.

What constitutes a constructive role in the Middle East is diligence towards ending all forms of occupation, allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state and helping bring about peace, stability, and opportunity for our people. If the United States truly believes in these goals, it should drop the hubris of dictating to us what is constructive for our own region, and instead engage in a serious dialogue on how to achieve them — flowery, sonorous speeches do not count. This would be the first step towards curbing anti-American sentiment, while creating a new, peaceful, Middle East.

Ahmed Salkini is the spokesperson for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/worldview/101122/syria-middle-east-diplomacy-us-policy