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Correction! Interview: John Waterbury, AUB

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Arpil 1, 207 7:31

Conversations: An American in Beirut

Posted by Scott MacLeod | Comments (3) | Permalink | Trackbacks (0) |
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When I heard John Waterbury was stepping down as president of the
American University of Beirut, I phoned him to ask how his 10-year
tenure had gone. I was slightly taken aback by Waterbury's gloom when I
asked him how he saw things generally in the Middle East. He offered a
long-term view that was disturbing but certainly thought-provoking.

"I have been working and living in the Middle East since 1959-1960," he
said, "and I have never seen a period in which U.S.-Arab or U.S.-Middle
Eastern relations have been at a lower ebb. What really has discouraged
me and depressed me in this situation is that anything that the U.S.
advocates, even policies that I think in other times would have been
listened to seriously if not respected, are now denounced simply because
they emanate from Washington. The whole democracy agenda is simply
identified with the Bush administration. Democracy advocates can't hold
their heads up. They are immediately accused of trying to carry out the
Bush agenda in the Middle East and somehow being complicit in all
aspects of U.S. policy. Liberalism has kind of disappeared as a force.
It is very hard for a liberal or a democrat to advocate their agenda
without being tarred with the brush of being a lackey of the Bush
administration. The ground is shaking under their feet.

"Why I think relations are so bad, unprecedented in my experience," he
added, "is that we have managed to alienate our friends. Over the
decades, even in the police states of the Middle East, a rather large
middle class has built up alienated from their own regimes. They were
fairly well disposed towards the West and towards the United States. We
have lost them. Either they are scared to speak up. Or they are flat out

I've always had great respect for the university and the man. AUB is one
of the finest universities in the Middle East, and represents the best
of what America has offered the Arab world. AUB began spreading American
ideas and values well over a century before the Bush administration
discovered the merits of doing so through Karen Hughes's public
diplomacy or Liz Cheney's Middle East Partnership Initiative. Since it
opened its doors in 1866, initially as a project of Presbyterian
missionaries, AUB has educated tens of thousands of Arabs. AUB imbued
its students with ideals such as open society, tolerance and free debate
that were often lacking in their own countries. A list of AUB graduates
is a Who's Who of the Arab world that includes leading government
ministers, educators and businessmen. To name two: Ghassan Tueni, the
legendary owner of the An Nahar publishing house in Beirut, and Marwan
Muasher, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister who has just been
appointed senior vice president of the World Bank.

Americans like Waterbury have provided a tremendous service to the Arabs
and to fellow Americans as well, often at great personal risk. Former
AUB President David Dodge was held hostage by Iranian-backed Muslim
radicals for a year. His brave successor was Malcolm Kerr, who was
assassinated outside his office by a suspected Islamic extremist in
January 1984. I was in Beirut at the time, a few blocks away, and can
tell you that it was a very black day for Lebanon and for America. Kerr,
who was born in Beirut of parents who taught at AUB, was a leading
Arabist of his generation. Waterbury, originally a specialist on Morocco
who taught at Princeton for 20 years, was the first president to take up
residence again in Beirut after Kerr's death. Since 1998 he has revived
AUB's fortunes and spirits, significantly upgrading academic excellence
and campus facilities alike.

When Waterbury told me that despite AUB's success he saw the potential
for worse in the region, I listened.

"There is more room to fall," he said. "We have taken moderate,
middle-class professional people, who looked to the United States --not
to come in and provide solutions, but to help them carve out some
political space in their own countries-- and they now have given up hope
and turned away from us. That's bad in itself. But why I think it could
get worse is those are the very people who have the means to leave. They
have connections abroad. My fear is that they are going to start bailing
out and reestablish in Los Angeles, or Hamburg, or Paris, or Australia.
So as a political force in the region for moderation and a reasonable
dialogue with the West, they may begin to disappear. It happened in Iran
after the 1979 revolution. It is happening en masse in Iraq. If there is
reconciliation, I don't know who is left to reconcile. What you leave
behind are going to be very difficult and ornery actors let alone
elements that could sustain some kind of democratic system in Iraq.

"My fear is that we're going to see this constant erosion of a
potentially pro-western middle class in the Middle East, as they are
ground down by their own authoritarian regimes and a U.S. actor that has
so far engaged with the region in forceful and muscular confrontation.
I'm struck by how much change takes place from generation to generation.
In any 20-25-year period, we can see rather dramatic shifts in mood and
the way people think about things. I stress this because we have a
tendency to fight the last battle and not anticipate the new one. It's
extraordinarily hard to predict what we might be looking at in 15 or 20
years from now. Things may go much better than I'm anticipating, or they
might actually go much worse."

What explains this situation? According to Waterbury, it is related to...
"...the current situation of confrontational politics between the United
States and the Middle East. I think it's pretty simple. There are a
number of policies which I would call the military-coercive policies of
the United States which for whatever reasons are highly unpopular in the
Middle East. The invasion and so-called occupation of Iraq. From the
point of view of most Middle Easterners, a kind of blind U.S. backing
for Israel's policies in the West Bank and the occupied territories in
general. These are the two flash points. They are so deeply and hugely
unpopular that it is quite easy for the major adversaries of the United
States in the Middle East to associate anything coming from Washington
with these unpopular policies.

"Anytime a non-Middle Eastern power puts troops on the ground, I think
you can expect a huge reaction. The Middle East has been the subject of
foreign invasion and occupation for a very long time. So it is a very
gut instinct for Middle Easterners to react very negatively and
suspiciously to a foreign force on its ground. When a 140,000 of those
troops happen to come from the most powerful nation in the world, that
kind of makes it even worse. It may have looked totally justifiable to
us sitting across the Atlantic to have done so, particularly in light of
9/11, but it really was just a matter of time, and not very much time,
before that presence would be resented, opposed, feared, denounced. That
has enormously complicated a long ongoing situation of resentment of
U.S. support for Israel and its struggle with its Arab neighbors."

Waterbury says he's seen the problem first-hand in the aftermath of
Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution."  "The so-called opposition has to some
extent successfully identified [Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora with a
kind of blind loyalty or even lackeyism towards the Bush
administration," he said. "It's an unfair portrayal of Siniora and his
government, but it is one that I think has some resonance with many
Lebanese. That is unfortunate, because Siniora's government was
democratically elected, and yet the legitimately that should have come
with that has been severely tarnished by his image as, to put it
unkindly, as a puppet of Washington."

Waterbury's prescription?

"Not an easy one. I don't see how the damage that has been done can be
rectified in any short period of time. I think it's the work of at least
two or three administrations if all went well to begin to repair the
damage. I don't want to be naive. At the end of the day, this is the
greatest military and economic power on earth and I would never expect
many people to love us or even welcome us into the neighborhood.
Repairing the damage would be entering into a much less confrontational
and more interactive and cooperative mode with the Middle East. With the
understanding that no one is ever going to throw roses to Washington, no
matter what administration is in there. We are just too big and
frightening for that ever to be the case."

--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo
Reader Comments

Posted by Elliott A Green
April 2, 2007

No doubt Waterbury is right in that many or most Arabs resent Israel's
relatively mild acts of self-defense against Arab terrorism in
Judea-Samaria. But the fact is, and Waterbury should acknowledge it,
that the United States govt under Bush II has not been so accomodating
towards Israel's positions and actions as many Arabs claim, while
Waterbury's understanding of US policy towards Israel is unclear, that
is, it is unclear whether he agress with the widespread Arab
interpretation. His job though should be to explain to the Arabs that
the Bush administration is not so very pro-Israel as is often claimed in
the press or by fanatic European politicians. For example, after Arab
terrorists bombed the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, on Passover 2002,
just five years ago by the Hebrew calendar, Israel began Operation
Defensive Shield.
*This operation sent Israeli troops into Palestinian Authority zones
whence the terrorists were coming. Bush angrily demanded that Israel's
army cease this defensive action and withdraw, which would have allowed
the terrorists to continue to operate without interference, indeed with
support of the PA government. Moreover, Bush is the first US president
to have openly endorsed the notion of an Arab state to be called
"Palestine" in the Land of Israel. I cannot consider him a special
friend of Israel. It seems that Bush is now following the Baker plan
which will lead to more bloodshed and tears in the Middle East.

What Waterbury should do is explain the reality of Bush' policy to the
Arabs who are so self-centered that it is hard for them to acknowledge
reality. *
*[Elliott A. Green's writings are featured on Netanyahu's Web site:
<>    **CBG]

Posted by erv
April 2, 2007

funny... you Americans just don't get it, do you? even if you are
working and living in the Middle East, you still don't get it.

being pro-democracy and pro-human rights, does not mean one has to be
pro-American, pro-Western values, etc.

I guess it is about American feeling of being so special, so unique...
that anyone who wants democracy and freedom of speech, that particular
anyone has to be (has to be, no exceptions!) pro-American. it' like
Americans keep asking the same question, "how could anyone be
pro-democracy, and not be pro-American"?

here comes a surprise - it is possible. many people in the Middle East
do want democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. but they do not
want "American values," and they just hate US policies in ME. shocked?

but I guess you just prefer politically correct "liberals" who would
tell you what you'd like to hear - that Americans are wonderful, that
USA is the best, that Arabs should be just like Americans...

Posted by erv
April 2, 2007

P.S. contrary to deeply-entrenched belief, you have to understand that
your "values" are not, and never will be, universal.

because your values are a product of your historical experience, and
some of them have Christian roots. therefore, your values are
incompatible with historical experience and religious affiliation of the
non-Christian countries.

democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights, should spread all over
the world. but under different terms, adjusted to different conditions
and different historical experiences.

of course, this does not mean that anything goes! but forget the
b***s*** about "values."

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