Our Isolation From the Arab World

A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, where he specialized in Oriental languages. WILLIAM R. POLK is a member of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. As a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation, he lived for several years in the Middle East, and this provocative article he wrote on his return from a recent visit to countries he has known well. He is author of WHAT THE ARABS THINKand co-author of BACKDROP TO TRAGEDY.

LIKE, other students of the Middle East, I am alarmed at our current position and the drift in our policy. We have tended to lapse into a reliance upon the threat of force, to vacillate between bluff and threat, generosity and pettiness, and to slip into easy alliances with those who are linked to us only by opportunism. We have yet to offer real competition to the hostile ideologies.

We are now a domestic issue to the Arabs. We are intimately connected with the establishment of the state of Israel; our oil interests are the largest business ventures in the Middle East; our aid to Britain and France indirectly makes possible the continued activity of those countries in the area, and in addition several Asian countries depend on our support. Our enmity is feared by all, and our Sixth Fleet appears and disappears like a host of gray ghosts around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.

We have spent lavishly and have convinced ourselves that we have acted rightly but have received little in return. Never before have we been so desperately in need of achieving an understanding of the forces at work in the area. We do not need praise or the well-wishes of fair-weather friends, but we surely lack contacts with those who are critical of us, who suspect us, and who hate us. We need to break through linguistic barriers so as to communicate; we need to understand norms of conduct so as to be able to correlate actions and to achieve a balance between what we regard as the right and the good and what is so regarded by others. Above all we need to tell the East of ourselves in terms meaningful to their experiences.

We have come quite far in a decade, but our development has not kept pace with our involvement. Lacking cadres of specialists, we have created a new class of so-called experts. Necessarily we have taken short cuts: if Arabic were the exhausting task of years of study, if local customs seemed inscrutable, if local leaders were xenophobic, well, they could be bypassed. Available to us by inheritance in the Arab states was the Westernized diplomatic set which was for years the foundation of French and British control. Under former conditions, these people could be taken as spokesmen upon whom observers could rely since with British or French support they wielded effeetive if unpopular power. Today they are less able to put their opinions into effect and have tended, themselves, to lose touch with recent currents of the popular will. Furthermore, in the conditions in which we have operated, when a typist at the American embassy earns roughly the same As the native cabinet minister, casual social relations can develop only with the upper classes. Even more significant, in recent years certain American ambassadors, apparently acting upon the notion that acquaintanceship implies approval, have begun to restrict the contacts of their staffs to those known to be friendly to America.

During my visit to Syria. I was told by Akram Hourani, the parliamentary leader of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party, the Baath, that neither he nor his party colleagues had contacts in the embassy and thus were forced to rely upon hearsay or news dispatches in their attempt to evaluate American policy. Frankly, I took this as hyperbole. Hourani is generally regarded as the key man in the Syrian Parliament, speaking as he does for the most energetic group, the nonCommunist left, and he is certainly one of the coming leaders of the entire Arab world. Yet when I inquired at the American embassy, I was told that this is quite accurate: there are no contacts. The same situation, I found, was rapidly coming into effect in Egypt as well.

Paradoxically, then, the two areas in which we seem to be having the least success are the ones we are least interested in learning about. In Lebanon, which is much less significant in any scale of evaluation and which is already “won” (largely by a dole at the rate of about $15 yearly per person), wc work far harder to develop local contacts. But in Iraq and Jordan, we have never taken the trouble to meet the opposition. In Jordan we base our position upon the Bedouin, as the British did years ago when the urban population was a fraction of its present size. The future does not lie with the Bedouin. The urban classes, in our default, are pro-Nasser. When we speak of pro-Western Iraq, we really mean Nuri Said; but there, as a former prime minister told me, it must be admitted that Nasser is as popular as Nuri Pasha is strong. But Nuri, who is now seventy, is a lone giant. Not unlike certain other strong men he has been effective in stamping out the moderate opposition, led by Kamel Chadderchi, but he has not built a party which is likely to survive him. What will happen after his retirement is an open question — which requires open eyes. But the long-range outlook for our contacts and possible future allies is not what it should be, for our own interests; and with hundreds of young Iraqis studying in our universities, it does not approach what it could be.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Middle Eastern scene today is the emergence of the younger generation. These are young men and women who grew to adulthood under Western domination; they are directly or indirectly Western-trained, and their ideals are much more like ours than were those of the older generation. A middle class is arising, and many of the most active of the younger men represent it. What was to the older generation a loosely worn cloak of nationalism is to them a skin; not only is there a more intense dedication to nationalism but there has also been a certain discernible shift away from the simple self-determination concept of nationalism toward a greater concern with domestic problems. And these problems — disease, grinding poverty, a huge backlog of ignorance and illiteracy, and economic underdevelopment — are horrifying in their complexity, enormity, and immediacy. To find solutions or even “new ideas, ‘ Arabs are today more than ever before exploring the whole spectrum of ideologies. Concepts are still remarkable for their flexibility and for the mutations they have undergone in the Middle East, but there is a decided hunger for plans, systems, and ideas.

And here, in catering to the ferment among the younger intelligentsia — a group which is much wider in relation to Arab society than it is in ours — is where the Russians are at their best.

PERHAPS more potent in the Russo-American competition in the Middle East than all the arms, the goods, and the diplomatic moves is the advent of Soviet books. The increase is startling. In some Arab countries Soviet publications are stilt banned. However, even before the First World War, translations were made from the Russian classics. Many Arabs, for example the Iraqi novelist Dun’n-Nun Ayyub, found the intellectual ferment of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s not only fascinating in the same terms as have many Americans but relevant to their own experience. One of Ayyub’s first works in Arabic was a translation of Fathers and Sons, which to him was also a study of the rift between generations in the current Arab scene.

Today it is possible to find in addition to the literary classics many of the basic books of Marxism as well as a growing library of current Russian and Chinese writings in Arabic. In Cairo bookstores, along with these, several hundred titles in English translation are available. Engels’ works average 12 cents, four volumes of Lenin cost $2.75, and Das kapital is 95 cents. Current publications are a few cents a volume. But of the lot, the most inviting, and the best sellers, are still the classics. Chernyshevski, Belinski, and even Herzen are available at roughly a dollar a book. Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is 20 cents, Tolstoi’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth is 90 cents, Turgenev’s Sports- man’s Sketches is 80 cents, and Pushkin’s Queen of Spades is 10 cents.

An Egyptian book of 250 pages normally sells for $I, and to this norm Soviet publications in Arabic adhere. American books sell at double their American prices — a $5 book which an American professor at home begrudgingly buys on a salary of $500 a month becomes a $10 book which an Egyptian professor earning perhaps $150 a month cannot buy. Arabic publications of the American government have not proved a great success, and even the output of the highly successful Franklin Publications seems not completely acceptable to intellectuals. Why? The usual answers are that they are thought to be propaganda and they do not often enough cater to the Arab’s hunger for ideas. (I doubt that American intellectuals own many of the English versions of the kind of books we send to Arab countries.) Even if the Russian books are propaganda, which in the broad sense even the classics are, they are welcome because of the fact that their ideological books are quite open and frank in offering an approach to the creation of a new society, which most Arabs — however much they may differ regarding what kind of a society — want. And the classics have an intrinsic value which transcends propaganda. As a friend put it, “If you would print Walt Whitman at Russian prices, we would love it. But you give us neither your classics nor your philosophy.”

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that we have adopted a Madison Avenue approach to the selling of democracy. The emphasis in our propaganda is on the crudest materialism and relics upon the most obvious gimmicks. America is the land of the supermarket, the two-car family, and the bathroom. But is this all we really have to offer? We offer money, some of which has accomplished excellent works, and we offer arms — when we get nervous we even deliver them airmail — but in the realm of the intellect we give our audiences as little credit as does the average television advertiser. Then, when we do something that is praiseworthy, for example several years ago when we helped a number of stranded pilgrims reach Mecca in time for the pilgrimage, we so vociferously applaud our own efforts that there is very little anyone else can say. Finally, we have the President photographed, with his shoes off, in Washington’s Islamic mosque, a promotion stunt so obvious that the Arabs can only smile.

Our propaganda backfires in many ways. In our picture of America there are no slums, no social problems, no racial discrimination — none of the domestic issues which have challenged and stimulated us in recent years. This is puzzling to peoples whose whole lives are engaged in grappling with seemingly overwhelming social problems. What is more, such fairy tales are easily discredited by returning Arab students, by Soviet propaganda, and by our own popular press. As a consequence our propaganda, true or false, is devalued.

For better or for worse the Middle East has learned to follow intimately our domestic affairs. In every conversation I had in Cairo, racial segregation. the suicide of Mr. Norman, Canadian ambassador to Egypt, and the appearance of Arthur Miller before the House Un-American Activities Committee occasioned quick jibes at America which were mitigated only partially by praise of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions. I am glad I left before Little Rock.

But what might happen if we were to come clean? An Arab friend who studied in a Southern university and who is now a delegate to the I.L.O. told me that at a recent meeting in Geneva the issue arose of adopting nationwide fair-employment practice codes. France opposed the move because of the effect in Arab North Africa (which is legally included in metropolitan France). The American delegate upheld France. The AfroAsian bloc delegates then prepared to attack our move as both harmful to the Arabs and undemocratic. Then, my friend said, the American delegate asked leave to speak and did so in candor. He explained exactly why he could not support such a resolution, discussed racial problems in America in a frank and adult fashion, both admitting the weakness of our current position and indicating the direction of change. My friend remarked, “That is all we could have asked. I didn’t speak against him nor could my colleagues. This is one of the few times you have been frank with us.”

AMERICAN policy in the Middle East in the past two years, indeed in the past decade, is far removed from this line of approach. As events have not gone in the ways we wanted, we have come to play with bribes and threats. When we oppose policies we have little that is constructive to offer in their place. Although we strongly opposed Nasser of Egypt, we show in Jordan that we have nothing to replace him with except the rule of kings. Nasser both as a ruler and as a symbol occupies such a central position on the current scene that I should like to discuss him briefly. The attitudes toward him I found in the course of my trip are not those presented in the American press. To us he has become a hodgepodge of Hitler, Stalin, and a wily Oriental despot. In Egypt he represents the younger generation and is most popular among them.

I have remarked that the new generation is partly understandable as a middle-class movement, and perhaps this is indicated in its quest for respectability. Most Egyptians, even those who genuinely fear him, agree that Nasser has given them a greater degree of self-respect than they have ever felt. No one who knew Egypt in the old days can fail to be impressed by the revolution in the public personality of the policeman, the soldier, and even the professional man. It is important to remember that it was only a decade ago when even the king of Egypt could not have belonged to the exclusive European preserve, the Gezira Sporting Club, and when the biting satire of Major Jarvis’ Oriental Spotlight was the nightmare of the whole nation.

Nasser has also given many Egyptians something of a feeling of stability, a curious achievement for the leader of a revolution. The Egypt of 1950 gave one the sensation of sitting on a volcano. Today the wealthy have the security which comes with having passed a dangerous point and passed it not only with heads still upon shoulders but with riches relatively intact. The revolution has been remarkable for several things, but for none so much as moderation. Wealthy friends, even in the exposed minority communities, surprised me by the warmth of their support of Nasser. “God help us if he dies,” said one. “If the army loses control, we might have a Jacquerie.”

Intellectuals were less enthusiastic. It is the Syrian, not the Egyptian, government to which many look for ideology. In Egypt the intellectuals have had to swallow some bitter pills. For years they had planned for the new Egypt, and yet when it came they had little to do either with its conception or with its birth. Nasser told them bluntly that “not one of them presented a new idea.” The Army has been harsh with the universities, students have all but disappeared as a political force, and even professors are required to obtain government permission to meet with foreigners. But it must be emphasized that although basic splits exist in many policy issues, it is generally agreed that Nasser is the best that Egypt has had or could hope for in the immediate future, and, therefore, has to be supported.

The proletariat bears the brunt of the Army’s energy. In its lurches toward a better Egypt, the regime has occasionally moved with such dramatic suddenness and with such callous efficiency as to terrify the pathetic mass which drags like an anchor on the country’s development. In Cairo I was told of the case of a slum district marked for clearance. The government ordered its inhabitants to move. They did not. Where were they to go? In the past, government laziness had been in itself a sort of Bill of Rights upon which the safety of the individual rested. But given the restless energy of Nasser’s trouble-shooter, alBaghdadi, such reliance was sadly misplaced. At the end of the time limit, the inhabitants were forcibly evicted; their homes and the belongings they could not carry were leveled.

It is easy to criticize the tough-mindedness involved. But many Egyptians feel that they are in the same stage of development as was the West in the nineteenth century, when the same necessity to build, regardless of human cost, gave us our great industrial and financial foundations. Put bluntly, there is also a general realization that in a country where only one child in two lives to the age of five and where, unless something drastic is done to bring about a change, the survivor can look forward only to a life of disease, poverty, and hunger, a clean if ruthless slice with the scalpel is kinder in the long run than milder measures.

The great hope of Egypt — the anesthetic to kill the pain of that scalpel — was the High Dam. For the failure of this, Egyptians of all classes blame us.

IF EGYPT had other comparable possibilities, the feasibility of the dam could be questioned, but she has not. The High Dam offered what seemed the only hope for a period of grace in the frantic race with the growth of population. Thus when Mr. Dulles’ curt renunciation of the previous American offer of aid arrived in Cairo, it could only be taken as a deliberate attempt to topple the government. Let me paraphrase the observations of an Egyptian friend:

“When Dulles’ message came and I had a chance to read it, I closed my business and went home with a group of friends to listen to the radio. The wording indicated that it was sent with the sole intent of ruining Nasser, and so we assumed that it heralded a planned coup. We waited by the radio for hours, expecting to hear that Nasser had been arrested or shot, but nothing happened. One of us noted that the message had come on a holiday when banks, the Bourse, and almost all businesses were closed. That seemed very inept planning for a coup, because the government obviously on any other day would have been under strong public pressure but on that day all of the usual meeting places, where opinion or even panic might have formed, were vacant. But still we felt sure that no government would send a message like that unless everything were carefully prepared. We waited and still only the usual programs came over the radio. Finally, late in the night a spokesman announced that the government was still firmly in control. Later when the announcement came that the government had decided to nationalize the canal — well, you can’t imagine the popular reaction to that. Suez was the last of the great symbols of foreign rule —Kasr el-Nil barracks, the Citadel, and Suez. When Nasser came into Cairo after nationalization, he was a popular hero as he had never been before. Dulles gave Nasser Egypt.”

Many Westerners who had been critical of this episode in American policy toward Egypt felt that we had been redeemed by our stand at the United Nations during the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Few Arabs agreed. The Russian “threat” to London was taken seriously, and the American ambassador to France was quoted as considering it crucial. No one thought the British or French were worried by our verbal stand. Thus Russia, rightly or wrongly, was regarded as the savior of Egypt. Then came the announcement of President Eisenhower’s speech on foreign policy. Many expected a dramatic turn in American policy. If our performance at the UN had not shown our teeth, it had shown our heart. It surely gave us a great opportunity to go to Asia in terms that Asians wanted to hear.

But the Eisenhower Doctrine is not an Asian policy except in incidence; it did not announce a new credo of American belief, nor did it approach the problems and issues felt by the Middle East. As it was understood in Egypt, the meaning was “We will protect the Middle East, but not from those whose bombs and rockets had just been killing Egyptians (because those people are our allies), but from those whose actions had popularly been credited with averting a return to European domination.” Even if the Egyptian government had wanted to accept the Doctrine, and it is certainly obscure why at that moment they should have, popular feeling was strongly opposed.

THE slogan in the Middle East today is “positive neutralism,” a phrase with almost Hegelian obscurity. Put in its simplest terms, I understand it to involve the desire to live between East and West not as the passive buffer but rather as the floating vote which can be crucial on issues of world import and which can gain the most from both by “balanced exploitation.” In Egypt there are many signs that the government is striving to become not too closely involved with Russia, and it seems to me likely that Britain, neutralized by the Suez debacle, is in a position to become the Middle East’s harmless friend. The British who felt and acted the most strongly about Suez are now seemingly preparing not only to let bygones be, but wherever possible to utilize them. We, who were far less involved in the first place and who had great opportunities for bettering our position, have replaced Britain as the most-hated nation.

In Syria the position is in some ways more simple. The Syrians have noted that when the tripartite guarantee of the frontiers of Israel and the Arab states was violated by Israel, two of the guarantors joined the attack and the third, America, was unable to prevent them. Rightly or wrongly, Syria today expects an Israeli attack upon her territory. We have by our pronouncements convinced the dominant Syrian politicians that we regard them as Communists and will not work with them. In their eyes, we have bought Jordan (and paid cash) after having engineered a coup d’état against its mildly left-wing government. We have no contacts among the Syrian left wing, studiously avoid making any, and many Syrians are convinced we are planning a coup there. We strongly oppose Syria’s receiving Russian aid or arms but have made it clear that we will give neither to those now in power. They cannot buy arms or equipment from us since in Syria, as in Egypt, they must pay in cotton. This the Russians are happy to accept, whereas we are unable to accept it. Therefore, it has seemed logical to many Syrians to accept all the Russian help offered.

In summary, it appears to me that we have deliberately thrown away flexibility in our policy. We have arbitrarily, often without adequate information, divided Arabs into those on the one hand with whom we will coöperate, to whom we will give, and from whom we will apparently expect little, and on the other hand those with whom we will have nothing to do, whom we have convinced can have nothing from us but animosity, and toward whom we give the appearance of pointing a loaded gun.

Why should this be? Is Syria today less of a democracy than Jordan? Is Egypt less than Iraq or Saudi Arabia? Are we sure that the goals of these countries are incompatible with our own? Is the pouring into Asia of millions of dollars worth of arms, aid, and expertise to be our answer to the hunger for ideas? Should we not stop and take stock? Or have we arrived at the position where our only answer to Russian propaganda — or indeed to ideas and aims which are much closer to our own than to Communism — is the rule of tired old men and kings?