(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Possibly Innocents Abroad

This is, I think, the first post on which I am pulling out my little carry-on size soapbox.  If it's too obnoxious, please excuse me and go on with your lives.   That said:

I'm sure all of you have been following the news on the Middle East to one degree or another.  Maybe you are a university student and need to keep up on the news for a class, maybe you're worried about me, maybe you are just a generally informed individual.  And many of you disagree with some of the choices made by our government at one point or another.  I know that this is true.  The thing is, though, and I never realized this before, but that doesn't always make it across the big big pond.  For the most part, the Syrians are really good at separating the objectionable choices made by government from the feelings of the people ruled by said government.  Therefore, while they pretty uniformly oppose America's occupying Iraq, they're not mad at me about it; they are mad, if they are mad, at the American government.  This is a vital distinction and one which we in the US sometimes fail to make.  (A couple of the Americans in the program have reported people yelling at them about political stuff, but that was also at a club.)

When it comes to the incredibly momentous changes currently sweeping the region, though, the Syrians with whom I've spoken are bewildered by the American response, or lack thereof.  American waffling during the Egyptian revolution they can get; it was a big deal, after all, involving a major US ally, and the outcome was uncertain.  But now that Libyan planes are opening fire on civilian protesters and hundreds have died throughout the country, how can "the West" (in big quotation marks) remain silent?  Looking at the previous examples of recent popular uprisings in the area, and considering that the Libyan ambassador to America himself has condemned the repression of protests, why isn't the land of the free and home of the brave even speaking for freedom and courage?

Similarly confounding is the recent American veto of a UN resolution which would condemn Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as an obstruction to the peace process.  This would have been, like previous UN resolutions regarding Israeli occupation and settlements, ink on paper, nothing more.  It contained language rather similar to that used earlier by American officials when requesting a halt in settlement construction.  Yet of the 15 members of the UN Security Council, only America opposed the resolution.  That was enough to halt it completely, even though the US could have abstained.  Given the current political atmosphere in the Middle East, especially, the American veto seems...well...foolish.  Couldn't American officials look at the 14 other delegates and gracefully bow out on this one, rather than staking an increasingly isolated position contrary to prior UN resolutions?  For me and the other Americans here, it's kind of embarrassing, and definitely hard to explain.

While, as I mentioned, the Syrians I know are very good at the government/people distinction, not everyone is.  And the more that gap widens, the more difficult it will be for people in other countries to think of Americans as fellow humans-- with stubbed toes and runny noses and cute babies and crushes on people and weird songs they learned in elementary school.  From being here, I've learned that passively disagreeing with government decisions, while a good start, can't be enough right now.  Because, unless I had several hundred college-age Facebook friends with constant status updates about politics and international relations, I would have no idea that some Americans protested in support of Egypt and now of Libya.  For our own sakes, we need to be heard at the highest levels, through advocacy work or arguing with our representatives or whatever.  Because it's their doings that make it over here, and right now, it's not a pretty picture of the American people, nor, I would argue, an accurate one.

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