In the Middle East, blaming foreign influences has become a common strategy among leaders to dismiss the unrest in their countries. In fact, this trend has been going on in the Middle East for much longer than the last few years. The West can view these statements as absurd and choose to ignore them, but they reveal more than meets the eye about the general sentiment towards the U.S. in the Middle East. If the U.S. wants to succeed in its counter-terrorism and security-related foreign-policy objectives in the Middle East, it needs to pay more attention to the public opinion in the region.
Tens of thousands of protesters had poured into the streets in June for an anti-government rally calling for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resignation, and accusing him of becoming an authoritarian leader. But Erdogan, rejecting these accusations completely, has not only blamed these protests but also the unrest in Brazil on foreign led-conspirators seeking to destabilize these countries. Sound ridiculous? He’s not the only one. We could go much further, but for now it will suffice to only look back at 2011.
Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had pointed fingers at foreigners when the uprising against his 41-year rule had begun, saying it was part of a grand plot to colonize the country. At the UN annual meeting, Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem blamed Western forces for instigating the uprising in Syria, accusing them of arming and financing religious extremism against the Bashar al-Assad regime. In Iran former President Ahmedinejad had said, "They are trying to foment discord, seeking destruction and a reinforcement of their evil dominance in the region." In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh blamed the U.S. and Israel for protests, calling them a part of external conspiracies. In Egypt, both pro-Mubarak and pro-Morsi groups have blamed the West for the uprisings that led to the ousting of both leaders.
None of this should come as a surprise. Leaders, in face of attacks on their leadership from within their own societies, may attempt to mobilize their existing supporters and dismiss the crowds by creating an “us against them” phenomenon. Or, on a more innocent level, they may psychologically choose to overlook these rebellions either out of disbelief or delusion. It’s always easier to accept an attack from the outsiders than to question the loyalty of one's own.
The West can observe these leaders’ behavior and turn to any of the explanations above. But these accusations shouldn’t be dismissed so easily if these leaders — no matter how irrational they seem — think there's a political advantage in putting the “West” on the “other side.” What makes them believe that bashing the West might appeal to their domestic opposition? Public opinion of the U.S. in the Middle East remains dangerously low despite the fact that many believed it would considerably improve after the 2009 election of President Obama — a much more favorably viewed president in the Middle East than George W. Bush — and the Arab Spring movement.
Even though the U.S. abandoned Hosni Mubarak and voiced complete support for the Egyptian people’s freedom during the 2011 movement, many people during the 2013 protests against Morsi were blaming the U.S. for supporting another dictatorship in Egypt. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood continued to blame the U.S. for the uprising against Morsi and the subsequent military coup. The inconsistency didn’t matter: It seems that whatever anyone disagreed with, somehow the U.S. was seen as a supporter of it.
Both Benghazi's and Cairo's U.S. embassies were attacked in September 2012 — only shortly after the U.S. had shown considerable support for both Libya's and Egypt’s “freedom” movements against their dictators. Although U.S.–Turkey relations have improved and continue to do so economically, data suggest that anti-Americanism in Turkey has continuously increased since the 2003 Iraq invasion. In Syria, while the Assad regime well aware that the U.S. would prefer a rebel victory, the low-key response to the conflict by the U.S. is antagonizing the rebels and victims of the civil war more and more. In Yemen, civilian casualties of CIA drone strikes have caused many tribal residents and young activists to turn against the U.S.
The policies that have led to this sentiment could be debated between the West and the Middle East forever. But the reality remains: If the West truly wants to mend its relationship with the Middle East and achieve its security objectives, it needs to start improving the public sentiment in these countries and not just seek to gain leverage over leaders with economic and military aid. The U.S. needs to consider the reasons behind the anti-American rhetoric of Middle Eastern leaders in terms of the society such rhetoric is designed to appeal to. Winning the “hearts and minds” strategy is not just about terrorism and radical Islam — it’s about tolerance for culture, promotion of trust, and effective communication.