Once again Americans are perplexed and frustrated by the blows they suffer from the Islamic and Arab world. Watching the gruesome sights from Benghazi and Cairo, Americans may be thinking: Look how much we have done for them. We went to two wars to give them a free Iraq; our fighting men and women have sacrificed their lives to rid Afghanistan of terror; we have supported the Arab Spring and helped oust Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi. Why do we deserve such a slap in the face in return?
Some of us, who are not just observers of the Middle East but who actually live here, were not so surprised. Especially those of us who have a long memory. Let’s borrow a page from the history book.
On February 14, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on board the USS Quincy, in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal. The American president, returning from the Yalta Summit, where the victorious allies had just decided how to rule the postwar world, met the Saudi king, hoping to achieve three goals: A Saudi consent to the settlement of Jews in Palestine; the establishment of American bases on Saudi soil; and a free flow of cheap oil.
On the first request, President Roosevelt received from his host a flat negative answer. Ibn Saud, however, had a very original solution for the Jews: Now that three millions of them have been murdered by the Nazis in Poland, he told his American guest, why don’t the rest of them go to the areas vacated by their dead brothers and sisters?
A fine suggestion, you have to admit. Says a lot about the Arab attitude in general, especially if we bear in mind that one of the most vocal Arab figures during the war was Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who met Hitler in Berlin in November 21, 1941. The fuhrer promised his guest that when Nazi troops had conquered the Southern Caucasus, “Then the time of the liberation of the Arabs will have arrived. And you can rely on my word.” Unfortunately for the Mufti, he bet on the wrong horse.
Back to the Roosevelt-Ibn Saud meeting, which signaled a milestone in American involvement in the Middle East. After being rebuffed by the Saudi King on the Jewish issue, President Roosevelt nevertheless sent him a letter (one of his last) in which he reminisced on “the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago and in the course of which I had an opportunity to obtain so vivid an impression of Your Majesty’s sentiments on this question.” He then went on to reassure Ibn Saud that, “I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.”
While thinking about this American need to find grace in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims, I can’t resist the temptation to recall President Obama’s Cairo appeal to the Islamic world, on June 4th, 2009: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Words which sound so hollow in light of this week’s events.