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Benjamin Orbach: The death of Laurence Foley

How is it that U.S.-supported Jordan is where an American is gunned down?

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

AMMAN - During a cab ride home Monday, my driver expressed to me how sick he was over the murder of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley. He told me in Arabic that "no religion -- Islam, Christianity, or Judaism -- condoned such actions," and that a Jordanian could not have done this.

   Benjamin Orbach, a Pittsburgh native, is a David Boren Graduate Fellow of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies, spending the year at Jordan University in Amman (benjaminorbach@yahoo.com). 

I was returning home from a visit to a local grade school for foreign students. A Jordanian friend had asked me to meet her students and to talk with them about the importance of learning Arabic; I had focused our discussion on bridging the gap of misunderstanding between the Arab world and America. Whether a Jordanian is responsible for the unjustifiable killing of Foley or not, his murder is the latest reminder that this gap is growing at an increasingly dangerous rate for Americans and American interests.

How is it that here in Jordan -- one of the United States' closest Arab allies, and the beneficiary of debt relief, a free trade agreement and U.S. aid -- that an American diplomat was stalked and murdered outside his home? And if that could happen in Jordan, then what can be expected in Iraq, Afghanistan or in other countries of this region that attract American officials and civilians?

The answer is complicated. Many here in Jordan like Americans -- but do not like the U.S. government. Every day at Jordan University, I see students wearing American college T-shirts, sweatshirts and Gap clothes. When I listen to the radio, there is as much American music as there is Arabic.

In a society without a middle class, the idea of a minimum wage delights people. Yet, when the subject of the American government and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is raised, resentment and anger bloom.

There is a scorn here for Saddam Hussein and a sympathy for the Iraqi people, but when President Bush makes statements like his Ohio speech on Oct. 7, in which he explained that action against Iraq was necessary because weapons of mass destruction are held by a "murderous tyrant" that "has tried to dominate the Middle East, has invaded and brutally occupied a small neighbor, [and] has struck other nations without warning . . ." Jordanians react incredulously. They do not think of Saddam Hussein, they think of Ariel Sharon and of Israel.

An estimated 60 percent of the people in Jordan are of Palestinian descent. There is a deep sympathy here for the suffering that family members face in the West Bank and Gaza, and a deep anger for the support that the U.S. government provides to Israel.

It is hard to convince Jordanians that Iraq, which accounts for 20 percent of Jordan's foreign trade and all of their oil (at a discounted rate), is the region's biggest concern.

From the perspective of these Palestinian-Jordanians, the most pressing problem in the world is not Iraq or international terrorism; they view the world through a Palestinian prism. They cite the suffering of the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples and arms sales to Israel. They point to previous U.S. support of Saddam Hussein (during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s) and Osama bin Laden (during the Soviet war in Afghanistan). They use these points as evidence of a major credibility problem for the U.S. government in the region.

Compounding this lack of credibility though, is the tone of the Bush administration that leads many here, from students to shopkeepers to teachers, to believe that a war against Iraq is the next phase in the American war against Islam. Since the chances are slim that the ever-feared Arab Street will erupt, realists in Washington might be tempted to take a Melian Dialogue approach and ask, "Who cares?"

Yet, tone along with substance does matter; the U.S. administration's unabashed unilateral manner is insulting not just here, but has caused discontent most recently in the governments of stalwart allies like Mexico and Turkey.

The spread of anti-American feeling does not mean that the U.S. government must abandon its historic relationship with Israel or overhaul its interest-based foreign policy. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of several reasons for the growing spread of anti-Americanism worldwide, and management of that conflict will not guarantee an end to international terrorism.

However, the Bush administration must realize that it continues to be in U.S. interests to maintain alliances and relationships around the world. Shortchanging the concerns of allies, forgoing the diplomatic process and stripping the United Nations of real authority will lead to the precarious situation of having exacerbated anti-American tensions while overextending and isolating the American military and diplomatic corps.

As far as greater U.S. interests in the efforts to stop terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, such a situation will lead to failure. American citizens will face more unjustifiable attacks in the form of those suffered by Laurence Foley, Daniel Pearl and the victims of the Sept. 11 attack. U.S. citizens' safety at home and abroad is best served by an administration that works toward establishing more consistent policies, including allies' interests in its own goals, and making an effort to explain its policy choices with greater nuance.

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