Fifty years later, US President George W. Bush said, after the 2001 Slovenia summit with Vladimir Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
These former presidents are not innocent babes; they wouldn’t have reached the pinnacle of American politics had they been totally naïve. Nevertheless, the approach of American leaders in engaging with foreign adversaries has always been based on a genuine attempt at outreach, out of a deep conviction that, with openness and sincerity, they can remold the hearts and minds of their interlocutors.
This belief in the magical powers of outreach lasts until reality, usually in the form of tragic and deadly events, hits and prompts a complete about-face, requiring the leaders to act against their basic instincts, and display strength and Machiavellian cunning.
This intrinsic American approach of presuming innocence in others, confiding in them and viewing the world as cast in America’s own image should not be judged merely as a self-damaging flaw. In fact, it reflects the best values of American democracy. However, it should be reserved for kindred democracies to avoid exploitation by those who do not share these values and even hold them in contempt.
American political conduct can be attributed to a syndrome whose features are the following: It starts with the belief that unalloyed evil does not exist, despite appearances, and that, by personal contact and engagement, all evil can be redeemed. This belief is baked into American popular culture, including television series for young and adult audiences alike. It is embedded in the media, the political culture and the educational system. The syndrome attributes almost magical powers to the moment of personal contact that neutralizes evil and renders it impotent to deceive. If and when evil cooperates with you, it cannot be a case of cold self-interest, but must necessarily be the fruit of outreach and engagement.
This syndrome, which stubbornly denies reality, compounds other cultural differences between democracies and dictatorships, and renders the West almost unable to contend with evil. Only a few days ago, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un invited the United States to “a heartfelt dialogue,” the Western media swallowed this whole and celebrated it with great fanfare. (See, for example, “Raising Hopes, North Korea Offers to Talk about Its Nuclear Arsenal,” The New York Times, March 6, 2017)
The above syndrome can be detected in other Western democracies, but usually in a milder form. British “old Middle East hand” Robert Fisk provides a memorable example. When Fisk visited Osama bin Laden in his Sudan field office in 1993, he credulously accepted the latter’s protestation of innocence: “I am a construction engineer and an agriculturalist. If I had training camps here in Sudan, I couldn’t possibly do this job.” (The Independent, December 8, 1993). The paper titled the article “Anti-Soviet Warrior Puts His Army on the Road to Peace.”
For 20 years, MEMRI has tried to spare decision-makers and legislators the first overly optimistic stage by bridging the language gap between the Middle East and the West, and acquainting them with the realities of the Arab and Muslim world.
We exposed the double speak in public discourse, schoolbooks, religious texts and ideological tracts, often far more revealing than secret intelligence, in order to spare the painful cost of learning through bitter experience. Our efforts have often borne fruit, but today, looking at Qatari-American relations — and the way the Qatari mouse roars and manipulates the American superpowers — we realize how much more still needs to be done.
When the American syndrome meets Arab, Muslim and other authoritarian regimes, the American side stands no chance, despite the disparity of power. A popular Arabic expression describes the Americans as follows: “Americans are good people, they can easily be deceived” (al-Amrikan nas tayyibin–binghashu bi-suhula). Another expression goes, “screw them, collaborate with them and double-cross them” all at once (ishtghil fi-hum wa-ma’ahum wa-‘alayhum).
Con artists have always based their methods on selling the victim what the victim himself wants to believe. These authoritarian regimes are consummate con artists, and the American syndrome plays into their hands.
Qatar is an unelected, family-run authoritarian regime that stamps out domestic freedom of expression. For years, it has been the unapologetic breeding ground of anti-American, antisemitic and anti-Israel incitement, as well as a major promoter of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Since before ISIS arose and to this day, it has promoted Al-Qaeda and its various offshoots, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and it branches, especially Hamas.
For decades, it has sheltered the notorious spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, who advocates a second Holocaust “at the hands of the believers, God willing.” Just a few months ago, when the Omanis expelled an Indian jihadist cleric for inciting against America, it was Qatar that granted him immediate asylum.
Qatar is allied militarily with the extremist Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan, who in a few short years took modern Turkey back 100 years, to the pre-Ataturk era, and assails America to the point of a possible military clash. Today, Qatar has also come out of the closet as a staunch ally of Iran. Previously, this excuse for its relationship with Iran was the two countries’ shared gas fields. Now, Qatar musters an equally specious excuse: its conflict with the neighboring countries, which probably would not have occurred in the first place had Qatar not been in bed with Iran.
Like other authoritarian regimes, it has weaponized its totally state-controlled media to fight its enemies and support its allies. Qatar rebuilt southern Lebanon on Hezbollah’s behalf after the 2006 war, and did the same for Hamas in Gaza after its wars with Israel. (Both Hezbollah and Hamas are US-designated terrorist organizations).
Qatar poses as a champion of free speech while keeping silent about the brutal suppression of free speech by its friends and allies, from Gaza to Ankara to Tehran. It assisted the Taliban in Afghanistan and even hosted a Taliban representation in Doha, allegedly at the request of the United States, but continued hosting it even when this ran against the American will.
The Qatari ruling family believes that it can fool everyone all the time. Qatar believes that money can buy everyone — from the Olympics committee to Washington think tanks, universities, politicians and organizations, either directly or via lobbyists — and it has been proven quite right. What elevates Qatar’s bribery to a form of art is its ability to convince its victims that it is their friend and ally.
Even today, after it has succeeded in gaining an American seal of approval, the virulent incitement against America and its allies continues to dominate Al-Jazeera‘s broadcasts to the entire Arabic-speaking world.
MEMRI has documented the vile Qatari emirate’s sponsorship of terrorism and antisemitism throughout the years and continues to do so. Even in an Arab world rife with antisemitism, Qatar stands out as the clear leader. A recent summary of these findings appears in a special report titled “Qatar, The Emirate That Fools Them All, And Its Enablers,” which contains links to previous reports about Qatar. A follow-up report will be published soon.
Despite everything, the West remained in denial about Qatar’s activities in the Arabic-speaking world, or had an economic interest to look the other way, until Qatar’s own neighbors called its bluff. These neighbors — far from democracies themselves — need the United States, and unlike Qatar, are grateful for America’s help and are loyal to it.
The exposure of Qatar by its neighbors and adversaries only prompted this country to intensify its deceit. Without changing its conduct, it began a crash recruitment drive of character witnesses. Based on the plot lines of that horrible libel, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, what could be better for Qatar than using Jews — and the more religious and Zionist, the better? So they extended invitations to the leader of the Zionist Organization of America, to Orthodox rabbis and to the vice president of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations to come visit.
Now that Al-Jazeera has been exposed as a cesspool of incitement, what is a better countermeasure than recruiting an illustrious American defender of press freedom (who did not even bother to check the State Department website, which has designated Al-Jazeera a government-owned media arm, like the international television network Russia Today, that is unworthy of a free press defense)?
If the Saudis and others accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism, what can provide a better rebuttal than manipulating the well-intentioned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis into a “strategic dialogue” with this miniscule emirate, whose very existence rests on the American base located in it?
True, the Qataris may have stopped their active funding of terrorist groups (although who can vouch for that, when money can be transferred in ways that do not incriminate Qatar?). But in any case, the mouthpiece Al-Jazeera continues its 24/7 incitement (with occasional breaks for football and such) on behalf of Islamist ideology and jihad, which Qatar does not view as supporting terrorism.
Of course, Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis do not believe that Qatar is manipulating or using them. On the contrary, they probably believe that America has used Qatar, and that America is in debt to Qatar for hosting the Al-‘Udeid Airbase as CENTCOM headquarters for almost two decades. Little do they know that Qatar built the Al-‘Udeid Airbase not for the sake of the United States, but to assure its own survival. In this, Qatar is no different from Bahrain, which would have been forcibly reunited with Iran had it not been for the US naval base that has preserves its existence.
But while Bahrain shows its gratitude, Qatar allows itself to continue with the two-faced game of hosting the CENTCOM base, while inciting against the US role in the Middle East.
Lately, the Saudis and Emiratis have proposed to build an alternative to Al-‘Udeid, free of charge, in order to relieve America of its inflated sense of obligation to Doha. To preempt this, Qatar promised not only to expand Al-‘Udeid at its own expense, but also to construct an entire city — a virtual little America, with the all the perks — for US servicemen and their families. This is the highest form of economic-political lobby-building, which only the geniuses in Qatar could have invented.
One might have hoped that only simple people would be susceptible to the American syndrome. Unfortunately, leaders can come down with it as well. When it affects them, the American syndrome is highly dangerous for the security of democracies, as it transforms a threatening reality into a benign one, and may even miscast a foe as a friend.
If history is any indication, the masks will eventually fall, and the spell cast by Qatar and other enemies of America will evaporate, leaving US decision-makers free of their illusions. Unfortunately, this will happen only after the American syndrome claims innocent and needless victims. Qatar represents an opportunity to vanquish the syndrome before paying this price.
Yigal Carmon is president of the Middle East Media Research Institute.