Foreign Policy Blogs

Brief Post on a Brief Editorial

In the current Yemen Times, Hassan al-Haifi has a short editorial on the need for change in the Arab World.   I link to it for a couple of reasons.  One, basically, is that it is always interesting to read critical articles in the mainstream Arab press.  We tend to think that no one is allowed to speak their mind, that the press marches in lockstep with the ruler- and, by and large, this can be true, depending on the country.  There are ways to work around that, though, and Yemen for one actually has a lively and active opposition press.   It is still verbotento criticize President Ali Abdullah Saleh directly, but there are ways to work around that. 

Now, then: Hassan al-Haifi.   When I lived in Yemen, I used to make fun of him, both verbally and in print .  More than a bit purplish, I described him as ” important to read because he captures all of the flop-sweated conspiratorial nightmare gibberish of the old Arab nationalist myths in each of his columns, refusing to believe anything that doesn't fit his original thesis.”  And to a large extent this is still true, though (a little older, now) I might describe it a little differently.  Rare is a column of his that doesn't blame something- anything- on the Zionists. 

 So what makes him interesting?  Well, he is an ardent anti-Zionist, but also fiercely hates the stagnant Arab regimes and Islamic terrorism.   So he really doesn't fit into any easy category.  It is fair to think that most people in the Arab world are more or less like him- no great fan of America, but no great fan of its enemies either.  Of course, the major actors in the Arab/Muslim world are not like this, but it is important to realize that the people America needs to win over don't fall into simple categories.

 Al-Haifi's column begins with a fascinating paragraph, which I will quote at length, which I think helps illustrate the complexities and contradictions that America faces in its efforts to win the fabled hearts and minds.

 IIt is becoming indeed that after almost eight years of sloppy governance in the United States, the American people are relying on their genuinely democratic institutions to come out of the abyss brought on by the incompetence and sheer arrogance of the Bush Administration (and the Zionist machine behind it). Yes the word "change" is having strong resonance in the pre-election primaries by which the leading American political parties are choosing their favored candidates for the office of the Presidency in the United States. It is imperative that we just do not recognize this as a significant development for the United States, but an important lesson by which to learn that unless the people have the final say in the adjudication of their leaders there is no sense in believing that indeed governance is meaningful otherwise. The significance of the current American political exercise is that the word "change" is the dominating influence in creating the choice of the electors. Even the candidates from the party of the incumbent President in the White House are unfailing in detecting the widespread desire for a change for the better, and they are quick to also adopt the platform of "change" to respond to this broad based desire. 
This- this is oddly inspiring, isn't it?  Al-Haifi praises America and is almost awed at the idea of change, that despite what he sees as the nightmare of the last 8 years, the country can re-invent itself for the better.   This is the message America needs to promote, this message of constant improvement, if it wants to improve its image in the Middle East.   It isn't enough to promote people like the brave Saad Ibrahim or Kanan Makiya- we need to support them, but true western-style democrats are in the minority.   US policy needs to be geared toward people who have a grudging, reluctant respect for the country, tempered by years of disilusionement both justified and not, but who have yet to turn completely away.  Anything else is just a pipe dream. 



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.