U.S. Power and Influence in the Middle East: Part Five

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Jon Alterman: About 30 years ago, Joseph Nye helped popularize the idea of soft power. Throughout the Cold War, we had grown used to thinking about hard power–the use of the military to coerce another country’s compliance. The United States was in a constant arms race with the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Soviet Union’s inability to keep pace with the Reagan administration’s defense spending helped dissolve the country and end the Cold War without a shot being fired.

But as Nye saw it, the post-Cold War world would impose an even more complex set of challenges on the United States, and hard power would be of diminishing use. The United States needed to find ways other than coercion to get other countries to want what the United States wanted. That not only means other countries seeing U.S. global power as legitimate, but also involves those countries feeling economically, culturally, and intellectually aligned with where the United States wanted to go.

Amr Moussa was the secretary-general of the Arab League and had previously served as Egypt’s foreign minister. For years I’ve heard him criticize U.S. foreign policy. A few weeks ago, I saw him at a talk I was giving in Cairo. Not surprisingly, his question began with a critique of U.S. foreign policy.

Amr Moussa: You went to Iraq with goals of democratization and then left it to Iran. That raised a lot of questions about the credibility of U.S. foreign policy, especially as a superpower. Those question marks have harmed America a lot.

Jon Alterman: But even he admits there’s still something unique about the United States’ ability to get people to follow its lead.

Amr Moussa: The United States won its place as a prestigious superpower primarily based on the soft policy—Harvard, Nasa, Hollywood, you name it—that attracted the attention of so many generations. Many were brought up with the United States–U.S. film, the cars coming from the United States, the universities that we had–so this kind of soft power would not be affected by hard policy.

Jon Alterman: Amr Moussa’s point is one I’ve heard for decades throughout the region. People often dislike U.S. government policy, but that’s not the only thing they think of when they think of the United States.

Alanoud Alsharekh is a Kuwaiti women’s rights activist and an associate research fellow at Chatham House. She was a Fulbright fellow in the United States following academic training in Europe. And she says pretty much the same thing.

Alanoud Alsharekh: In general, the same cultural associations that I have are shared by many in Kuwait and beyond. We all watch Netflix. We all use the same U.S.-made tech products. Certainly, there are some stereotypes about the United States being morally loose. Some have reservations about its recent post-Arab Spring politics or strong doubts about the recent force involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I think that despite all of that, many want their children to continue their education there and benefit from the opportunities inherent in an inquisitive and academically open culture.

Jon Alterman: U.S. brands are sought-after globally. U.S. education is the gold standard. Hollywood is unique in its ability to entertain—and to inspire. So U.S. culture is still as attractive around the world as it ever was before. But what makes U.S. culture so attractive in the Middle East and just what does that mean for U.S. policy in the region?

Welcome to the U.S. in the Middle East podcast miniseries. In this series we talk to leading experts and former policymakers about the role of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East. I’m your host, Dr. Jon Alterman, senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. In this episode, we’ll explore the roots of U.S. soft power in the Middle East, tracing the story of what makes U.S. culture, ideals, and institutions so sticky in the region and beyond.

Jon Alterman: U.S. culture and commerce might be some of the most identifiable aspects of the United States’ soft power, but they are hardly the only source of it. The very idea of the United States is one of the largest sources of U.S. soft power in the Middle East, and around the world. The United States was born as a radical democratic experiment that hinged on ideals of self-determination, religious tolerance, free thought and expression, and openness.

Paul Salem: The framers of the U.S. constitution were dreamers. They were building a city on a hill. They were building the “new Jerusalem,” as they often called it. The United States has an aspect which is very aspirational and transformational. It was very attractive, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, with the idea that this was really a different society—a society of freedom, equality, opportunity, and multiculturalism. The United States is very much unlike European societies, which are very stratified and identity-driven.

Jon Alterman: That’s Paul Salem. Paul is half-Lebanese, half-American. He is a professional academic and a skilled musician, and he’s now the president of the Middle East Institute. He grew up in Beirut before moving to the United States to attend Harvard University. He says for Middle Easterners, what really set the United States apart from the rest of the world was its aspirational quality. Arabs had been dominated for centuries, first by Ottomans and then by Europeans. The United States had overthrown colonial powers. The example of the United States moving forward carried the banner for equality, liberty, and democracy. That resonated widely throughout the Middle East, and it continues to resonate.

Jon Alterman: For much of the last century, the United States was happy to help that idea resonate in the Middle East. President Woodrow Wilson was a vocal supporter of self-determination for former colonies of the Ottoman Empire.

Paul Salem: The United States came offering President Woodrow Wilson's self-determination and pushed back against French and other imperial ambitions. The United States was seen as a progressive force for national self-determination.

Jon Alterman: The good will didn’t last long.

Paul Salem: In the post-World War II environment, the United States immediately got caught up in the establishment of Israel. U.S support for Israel was the big narrative of Arab life from 1948 until today. The United States was on the wrong side of that, and you saw that very much in Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo. Despite the original positivity towards the United States—and U.S. culture—it was overtaken by the negativity of the politics of the region, particularly its support for Israel.

Jon Alterman: But that didn’t mean that U.S. ideal dried up with it. Instead, the same transformative ideals that defined the U.S. image in the Middle East became the basis of movements to counter what Arab publics saw as the United States meddling in the region.

Paul Salem: Western soft power comes from everything from Western education to democratic values like nationalism and self-determination. Those values carry within them the seeds of rejecting external powers, whether French or U.S. power. Those values were the very tools that a lot of Arab movements used to fight the Americans and the French. Thus, it’s an interesting sort of soft power, which becomes the cause of its own demise.

Jon Alterman: Arguably, the United States itself had sown some of the seeds of resistance to U.S. government efforts in the Middle East. But in the early days, most U.S. work in the Middle East wasn’t government work at all. Missionaries came to the Middle East to spread U.S. Protestantism through the Ottoman Empire, but their most enduring impact was two universities: the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the American University in Cairo (AUC). Although the institutions’ reputations have waxed and waned, they became central to elite life in both capitals and, by extension, throughout the Arab world.

Paul Salem: Growing up in Beirut, the American University of Beirut was a big presence. It was a major institution which shaped what is known as Ras Beirut—a multicultural, open society that flourished up until the civil war in 1975. My father taught at the university and was in the administration. I grew up in the shadow of the university and went to school in the international college—a prep school originally set up by the American University of Beirut.

Jon Alterman: By the 1920s, both universities had largely shed their religious identities, but they were still the vehicle for a clear cultural message. Lisa Anderson has had a four-decade career in academia, serving as the president of the American University in Cairo during the Arab Spring, from 2011 to 2016. Before that, she spent ten years as the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University from 1997 to 2007. She says that those universities started to embrace a different style of education.

Lisa Anderson: That's what AUC, AUB, and some of the other U.S.-style institutions in the region and globally represent–that there's a particular way of educating people that makes them better equipped for the challenges of life as a professional, as a citizen, and as a member of a community. We spent a lot of time explaining that as well as putting it to practice.

Jon Alterman: A large part of that model is to expose students to novel ways of learning and thinking.

Lisa Anderson: I think part of what AUC represents is this conviction that a particular kind of education is linked to the innovation and creativity that many people in the world associate with United States. We call that particular kind of education the liberal arts model, where you do a lot of–to use an athletics metaphor–cross training.

Jon Alterman: Alanoud Alsharekh says that, coming from the Middle East, that kind of an experience can be a revolutionary one.

Alanoud Alsharekh: I spent my first semester as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. Up to that point, I’d had a socially sheltered life, but I'd never been in a single sex environment before. It was both thrilling and very challenging. I stayed on campus, and in the dorms, there were these big banners with slogans from the 1970s, like, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I remember that I enrolled in an African American literature class where there were these passionate debates about who owned the “X” in the Malcolm X movie and all these ideas about identity and appropriation. It was the first time that I found myself immersed in an atmosphere that celebrated being a woman–and a smart, ambitious woman at that.

Jon Alterman: Part of that has to do with the way that U.S. students have been taught to interact with other learners—and their teachers.

Lisa Anderson: I think what people find appealing—is the informality and the lack of a sense of hierarchy. American citizens are relaxed with each other in a classroom setting. We'll interrupt each other. They debate with each other and with their faculty too. There is a sort of “egalitarian-ness” and informality about Americans in general that I think is quite off-putting at first if you come from an educational tradition where you were very deferential to the professor. But as soon as you realize that its genuine, you love it. You have to love it. It's a different way of learning. It's a more fun way of learning.

Jon Alterman: That sense of egalitarianism calls back to the fundamental principles of the U.S. experiment. Practically, however, it means that students in that sort of environment feel comfortable questioning authority. And it means that U.S. authorities are ready to be questioned.

Lisa Anderson: One of the things that I found even more striking than the fact that American students tend to feel comfortable questioning authority was that the American administration of universities expect that, whereas the administration of Egyptian universities typically expect deference to authority. American administrators don't expect it, even if they are in positions of authority, so when the students challenged our authority, we weren't particularly surprised by that. That just sort of seemed like what college kids do. I think that was more of a surprise to the students than anything else. They expected us to crack down hard—to be hostile. The idea that we would say, “yes of course you are supposed to question what we are doing” was a real surprise.

Jon Alterman: Anderson was president of AUC during protests that brought down one president, during elections that brought in another, and the later protests that brought down the elected president. For most of her tenure, Egypt’s young people were looking at a future that was swirling with uncertainty.

I think the theory of education actually does transfer pretty well. Once people understand it, they sort of find it appealing. They find it more plausible that, as events unfold in the course of the next 20 years, they're going to be better equipped to think creatively about them.

Jon Alterman: Anderson said AUC was conscious of the role it was playing in those heady days.

Lisa Anderson: I can't say I think we really influenced the course of historical events in Egypt in any significant way, but I think it is true that we deliberately and self-consciously modeled what a free campus expression policy would be like. I like to think that there's a residue. I like to think that people feel they have more agency and think of themselves acting more effectively in the world than they would have otherwise. And I think that's true, but I also think that in some respects you can look back in that period and find people feeling betrayed in that they were led to believe that they were going to be able to do things that turned out not to be the case.

Jon Alterman: The sense of possibility that Egyptians felt wasn’t exclusive to the United States, but it had an American flavor.

Alanoud Alsharekh: For me, there's an aspirational soft power when I think of the United States. Whether it’s from Hollywood movies or political movements, there's this ability to market and promote an idea, make it catchy, and simplify it. Then it resonates widely, even if it had its starting point elsewhere–like the “Me Too” movement or “Black Lives Matter.”

Jon Alterman: Paul Salem says you can see that phenomenon in U.S. pop culture, too.

Paul Salem: The protest music and the youth music of the 1960s and 1970s, which was part of a revolution in the West, had strong resonance in the Middle East. That was very clear.

Jon Alterman: That synthetic nature of American culture has made it hard to even define because it’s always changing—synthesizing and blending elements from other cultures, ideas, and societies into something new. But while it’s hard to define, you often know it when you see it. Or do you? As the United States has absorbed more of global culture, and as global culture has absorbed more of the United States, are Americanization and globalization the same thing?

Lisa Anderson: I think the association of the two continues to be quite strong because the origins of much of the impulse to globalization were in the United States. I, however, think—for better or for worse—that globalization is sort of becoming increasingly independent of the United States and independent of things American.

And if you think about social media, it's now deployed in ways that don't reflect very much of anything American—not American values, not American issues, not American anything. The two were very tightly associated for some time and, for better or worse, are being de-linked again.

Jon Alterman: Lisa Anderson says that is highlighted in the way that the way that Americans link women’s rights and human rights. Egyptians see it differently.

Lisa Anderson: I think Americans tend to associate women's rights with rights in general–women's rights are human rights. What’s very interesting is the extent to which, for example, if you look at President Sisi's cabinet now, it has a striking number of women in it—there are talented, skillful, and obviously very senior women in the Egyptian government. That is not strongly associated with the expansion of human rights in Egypt, so I think what you are going to be seeing is a loosening of those kinds of associations that Americans tend to take into the world. You are going to see more and more women in position of sort of public sector authority and governments and so forth and so on. That's not going to be particularly strongly correlated with democratization, human rights, or any of the other kinds of things that we associate with it here.

Jon Alterman: Alanoud Alsharekh tends to agree. We start at the same place:

Alanoud Alsharekh: I don't think you can escape Anglo-American feminism if you're studying the field, the theories, the activism, and even the later backlash against White feminism or the experiences of non-White feminist movements and intersectional feminism. These are very powerful ideas that shape a lot of feminist thoughts and debates.

Jon Alterman: But even so:

Alanoud Alsharekh: I don't see us as moving to being the same position as the United States, because we don’t share the same starting point or the same kind of cultural aspirations. We’re more community-oriented than the individualistic cultures that dominate most of the debates in the United States. But I would argue that there is a lot of interest in many Gulf countries in women's empowerment, albeit more so a top-down project.

Jon Alterman: Even if most Middle Easterners don’t seek to make their country identical to the United States, they still see the United States as the example to emulate.

Paul Salem: We often remark in Lebanon that supporters of Hezbollah—staunch supporters included—certainly don’t want to immigrate to Iran, nor do they want their kids to study at Tehran University. There’s no question. Nor do they want to go, if they’re really sick, to an Iranian, Russian, or Chinese hospital. On all of those measures, the United States is number one. That’s an asset.

Jon Alterman: The ideals, values, and culture that the United States has saturated the Middle East and the world with keep it attractive.

Paul Salem: And a lot of that is not so much because of the U.S. government, but rather because the U.S. experience—the economy, the higher education system, and the political system (which remains inclusive despite what others try to do)—create a strong pull. You don’t find that pull elsewhere. Nobody wants to be pulled to Tehran, Beijing, or Moscow. That’s partially why the United States—despite aligning politically on the opposite side of most Arab populations for much of the 20th century—remains the country with the most alliances compared to other foreign countries.

Jon Alterman: Today, U.S. soft power in the Middle East, and the United States’ pull, remains strong. U.S. products, brands, and popular culture play an outsized role in daily life. A lot of that has to do with the power of the U.S. economy and globalization, but even more than that, the idea of America remains salient. That idea—the transformative power of the individual to create meaning and value—has continued to make inroads in the Middle East, and both formal and informal U.S. institutions continue to help promote it. Sometimes, that same idea has inspired people to line up against the United States government or its policies. But it has helped make the world more recognizable to U.S. citizens and policymakers alike.

Next time on the podcast, we look at Middle Eastern views of the last few decades of heavy U.S. involvement in the region.