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World: Can U.S. Improve Ties With Muslim World?

The commission hopes its advise will prevent another tragedy from happening U.S. relations with the Arab and Islamic world have worsened since the attacks in America on 11 September 2001. Washington's military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its continued support of Israel in the Mideast peace process, have tensions on the rise. And the American commission tasked with studying the roots of the 9/11 attacks says the problem could grow worse unless the U.S. government modifies some aspects of its foreign policy.

Washington, 27 July 2004 -- "We need to join the battle of ideas within the Islamic world, communicating hope instead of despair, progress in place of persecution, life instead of death," Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said. "This message should be matched by policies that encourage and support the majority of Muslims who share these goals."

Hamilton was speaking in Washington last week about one of its principal recommendations. The report says the United States should provide more economic aid to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and launch various programs that would improve its image in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

But regional analysts tell RFE/RL that mounting such efforts will be difficult. Raeed Tayeh is the communications director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Tayeh says the motives of the United States are considered suspicious to many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, because Washington often appears to have a double standard on issues that are important to Muslims.

Tayeh says the United States cannot simply increase the amount of foreign aid it sends to Muslim countries. It must ensure that the money is spent properly, and is matched by foreign policy that does not oppose Arab and Muslim values: "Such foreign aid packages will be seen as the U.S. government trying to buy influence, simply because that has been the perception -- especially in countries that have received hundreds of millions of dollars -- because that aid has not had either a perceived impact on the lives of the people in those countries, or that impact has been overshadowed by the U.S. government's foreign policy," Tayeh said.

Tayeh says the motives of the United States are considered suspicious to many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, because Washington often appears to have a double standard on issues that are important to Muslims.

For example, he says, the United States calls for all countries to honor human rights, but in his opinion Washington ignores what he calls Russia's human-rights abuses in Chechnya, where Moscow's war against separatists is in its fifth year.

Tayeh says the crux of the problem with U.S. foreign policy is its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington has taken the lead in the peace talks, but he says that the negotiations have stalled because of American support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Tayeh, who is American, says a change of attitude is perhaps the most important shift the United States can make: "We [Americans] also need to engage the Muslim community with a different mentality. Because we're so advanced in this country, and because we're so powerful, we often look down on others and we often come across as patronizing," Tayeh said. "We need to reassure Muslims that we respect them, that we respect their faith, and that we respect human rights universally."

Anthony Cordesman agrees that Israel is at the heart of the differences between the United States and the Muslim world, but he sees the solution to that problem somewhat differently. Cordesman is a former intelligence analyst with the State and Defense departments who specialized in Mideast issues.

Cordesman tells RFE/RL that there is no broad, uniform way for the United States to improve its relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. He says U.S. missions in each country must be strengthened so that the needs of each can be addressed individually.

This is especially true, Cordesman says, in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington must demonstrate that it is being fair in helping to broker a peace deal between the two sides: "The primary problem we have in virtually all of these countries is to find ways to maintain our alliance with Israel and, through steps involving the peace process, show to the Arab and Islamic world that we are seeking a solution and that we are taking the lead," Cordesman said. "These kinds of tangible issues are very, very serious, and making general recommendations to address the root causes of terrorism simply is not a solution."

Cordesman expresses some dissatisfaction with several of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, including those to increase economic aid to certain Arab and Muslim nations.

He says the report lacked specifics other things the United States could do to improve relations with the people of these states while still keeping close ties to Israel: "The report does not address how we can work with allies -- either governments or reform movements -- to create a positive agenda where we are seen as an ally, not trying to impose our values," Cordesman said. "So I think that the problem is a great deal broader than the problem of aid."

In other words, Cordesman says, the answer is strong diplomacy, not money.