Small World: Another law of foreign relations

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Let’s call it “Sadat’s Law.” (I’ll explain the name later.) The law governs when the ruler of a nation, which is either very warm or very cold towards the United States, is loved or hated, respectively, by us, but the obverse is almost always true of his subject’s attitude toward him.

Think back to Iran in olden days: The Shah was admired in Washington and among our elites; his people threw him out. Next up was the Ayatollah Khomeini whom we quickly grew to loathe; his people regarded him as a virtual saint.

Now move to Egypt. President Nasser was loved by the masses as no Egyptian had been since the days of the pharaohs; we regarded him as only a notch above Hitler (who, by the way, was quite popular among the German folk.)

Sadat succeeded Nasser. After he threw the Russians out and made peace with Israel, he could have been elected to high office in Washington. But, he daren’t risk an election in Egypt. Pretty soon, despite his fancy uniforms and buddy-buddy with Nixon and Kissinger, he couldn’t bring development and lost local hearts and minds. Beloved by Americans, when he was assassinated, few Egyptians mourned.

Enter Mubarak and, though he couldn’t inspire the same warmth, he was our friend. So, naturally, the ever-patient Egyptians threw him out.

I wonder if you took a poll in Iraq, Libya or Syria, the populace would vote for the mess we have fashioned for them or for the dictator whom we couldn’t abide?

The list of loved at home, despised by us, could go on and on: Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. Somehow, we could never get our hearts beating in time with the ruler’s people. (Not that we should have in some cases.)

Why is this? All of us around the globe want the same things from life — freedom, a measure of comfort, dignity — the goals are universal, although the emphases may, and usually do, differ. Let me suggest a few reasons for why we are separated by the objects of our affection or hatred.

First, those first in the hearts of their countrymen know their countrymen: their history, their ambitions and how to touch them. From a great distance, culturally and psychologically, we don’t grasp those qualities. When we do, we often miss the context, the subtleties. On the other hand, they don’t understand us any better and frequently offend us, ratcheting down the relationship.

Second, in this country we have powerful media and political entities capable of shaping public perceptions where — as with exotic lands — there is little public knowledge. In the Middle East in particular, misrepresentation is rife. Take, for example, the alleged Iranian nuclear threat. In truth, there is little or no firm evidence of such a danger, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the papers or listening to the politicians.

Third, sometime popular perceptions in this country are closer to the truth than that of the home folks. The Germans and Italians for example, were wrong; about their sovereigns. Happily, in time most of them came to realize that.

So, what’s the lesson? I suggest that if we hope to resolve our differences with an antagonist, we must first understand him. Demonizing the other makes it difficult or impossible to come to an agreement, which, if it is to work and to last, must be based on mutual respect.

Henry Precht, a summer Bridgtonian, is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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