Small Wars Journal

There’s No Such Thing as the ‘Arab Street’

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 9:07am

There’s No Such Thing as the ‘Arab Street’ by Jonathan Schanzer, Wall Street Journal

Washington has stopped trying to figure out the “Arab Street.” From what I can tell it happened somewhere around Nov. 9, 2016. America is probably better off for it.

I’m not saying we should ignore public opinion in the Arab world. Nor should we ignore its politics. The Middle East, and what happens there, is of crucial concern to American policy makers and interests.

But at least since I arrived in Washington in 2002, the foreign-policy establishment has been on a quixotic quest to tap into the thoughts of an estimated 365 million people. Armed with language lessons, history books and advanced degrees, America’s Middle East analysts labored to understand why Arab populations cheered the 9/11 attacks, jeered the 2003 Iraq invasion, and brought down dictators during the Arab Spring. I was among them, taking trips to dangerous places in the hope that I could acquire “ground truth” that would help in America’s battle for hearts and minds.

The only “ground truth” I could ever discern was that the Arab world is a complex patchwork of national identities that are influenced heavily by clan, family, tribe and—of course—religion. The people speak different dialects and embrace different cultures. Sure, there are commonalities among Arabs, but the more you travel the region, the more you find yourself focusing on the differences.

There is not one Arab Street, in the same way that there is not one Main Street in America (consider the differences among New York City, Biloxi, Miss., Des Moines, Iowa, and Los Angeles). Numerous ideological currents run through our 50 states and 320 million residents. Just ask the pollsters who got it wrong in November.

In a rather poetic twist of fate, the Arabs are now sending delegations to Washington in their own quest to glean ground truth. Some have come to visit me. Others have popped in on other policy shops around town. The conversations vary, but the questions are basically the same. With the political sands shifting dramatically in Washington, the Arabs are desperately trying to understand the thinking of the new leadership, but also the thinking of Main Street Americans who were instrumental in bringing about this change…

Read on.