How the U.S. Army Sees The Arabs, Islam, and Middle Eastern Societies

By Barry Rubin

What do you tell soldiers who are risking their lives on Middle East battlefields about the people they are fighting for and against simultaneously? That’s a tough task. And now we have a fascinating picture of how it’s done.


“Arab Cultural Awareness” is a 73-page text by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence.  It’s easy to make fun of some things in it. Yet how can one briefly explain a complex, different society riddled with exceptions to soldiers who have other concerns, little knowledge, and no experience with it?

Remember, we’re talking about a text whose first section is, “Where is the Arab World?” followed by “What is an Arab?” I think they did a conscientious and honorable job, avoiding prejudice without generally creating a fantasy image, and doing a reasonable job of explaining Islam and social customs.

But here’s what makes this text especially interesting to me: It was published in January 2006, after September 11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan made this information vital but before hard-core “Political Correctness” set in to freeze American brains. I’m certain this book couldn’t be written today because it is too honest.

The section, “Commom (sic) Misconceptions about Arabs” has to contend with lots of difficulties.

“Stereotypes of Arab males:

“–All are “oil-rich Sheiks”. As in the West, there are economically diverse segments of the population.

“–Mad dictators. Various types of political systems in Arab world.

“–Terrorists. Overwhelming majority are law abiding citizens with families and a wide variety of occupations.” This is the only time a word deriving from “terror” appears. The words “Islamism” and “Arab nationalism” never appear at all, though it could be argued this text is about culture and not politics.


·”Stereotypes of Arab women:

“–All are oppressed by men. Not true.

“–All are veiled. According to Islam women are supposed to wear veils. In some countries, like Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, it is not imposed upon them and women are free to choose whether to wear veils. However, in other places, all women, even non-Muslims, wear veils out of fear of mistreatment by fanatics or those who pretend to be guardians of Islam.”

A book could be written about those two brief sections which hop through minefields of controversy. Consider the contradiction between saying Islam tells women they must wear veils with suggesting many do so only due to intimidation. Most, if not “all” women are oppressed. And in much of Syria and Egypt women are not free to choose in practice. On the other hand, though, could the “mistreatment by fanatics” sentence be used by the Obama-era army? I doubt it.

The book also tells us that “Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen” were in 2006 “parliamentary democracies.” Only Lebanon fit that description. But this is standard classification in the many American textbooks I’ve seen.

Similarly, there is a lot of politeness. Read the very short section entitled, “Arab Contribution to Civilization” which doesn’t quite match President Obama’s diplomacy by flattery because it can’t come up with too much.  And there is only a tiny hint that there is a certain feeling of superiority, expectation of global victory, and a deep-seated inferiority complex—a formula for rage if there ever was one—in these societies.


The section entitled “Arab Worldview” says the following. I have put the words that don’t conform with Obama ideology in bold:

“An Arab worldview is based upon six concepts: ….

“ATOMISM. Arabs tend to see the world and events as isolated incidents, snapshots, and particular moments in time. Westerners tend to look for unifying concepts whereas

Arabs focus on parts, rather than on the whole.” I’m not sure this is true. Maybe in a highly traditional part of the society but Arab nationalists, Islamists, and others certainly have unifying theories that they believe underpin a wide variety of events.

“FAITH. Arabs usually believe that many, if not all, things in life are controlled by the will of God (fate) rather than by human beings.” It is interesting to explore the implications of this. If you believe, as revolutionary Islamists do, that Allah is on your side then the balance of forces doesn’t matter. You will destroy Israel or defeat America no matter how bad the odds seem to be.

‘WISH VERSUS REALITY. Arabs, much more than Westerners, express emotion in a forceful and animated fashion. Their desire for modernity is contradicted by a desire for tradition (especially Islamic tradition).” That last sentence is a fascinating point and how to solve that contradiction is at the root of much regional turmoil. Of course, media coverage tends to greatly understate the desire for tradition, a factor that helped sabotage the naive expectations of the “Arab Spring.”


“IMPORTANCE OF JUSTICE AND EQUALITY. Arabs value justice and equality among Muslims, and to a lesser degree to others. All actions taken by non-Arabs will be weighed in comparison to tradition and religious standards.” That last sentence implies a double standard which does indeed exist. The West also has such an orientation but people consciously and constantly struggle against it. Indeed, nowadays in the West anything that corresponds to tradition and religion are automatically deemed to be wrong by those in control of intellectual and often of political life.

“FAMILY VERSUS SELF. Arabic communities are tight-knit groups made up of even tighter family groups. Family pride and honor is more important than individual honor.”

“PARANIOA. (sic) Arabs may seem paranoid by Western standards. Many are suspicious of any Western interest or intent in their land.”

 I know at least four people associated with the U.S. military who have faced pressure, firing, or denial of jobs based on believing some of these things. Differences among societies do exist and some of these explain why some societies are more successful than others.

To ignore or deny these things is to blind oneself to reality and hence make it impossible to deal successfully with threats and problems. U.S. behavior in Afghanistan is a prime example of this problem and yes it does cost lives. For example, if one ignores “paranoia,” as it is called here, that overestimates your own ability to win over people through apology, concessions, trying to prove to be a nice guy, and taking higher risks.


Another interesting section is entitled “Successful Negoiation (sic) Suggestions.”

“Use Policies of Inclusion: Consult and involve in negotiations all the power brokers that have the ability to affect your project.”

True, in part because unless a dictatorship exists—in which case only the man at the top has ultimate authority—the chain of command is extremely weak. But the real problem is that  different power brokers try to outbid each other in how little they give, how much they get, and the ability to criticize others for being too flexible.  That means deals are hard to reach, even harder to implement, and commitments are rarely met.

“Xenophobia: Be prepared for some distrust of foreigners. Historically, Middle Easterners perceive foreigners in the Middle East as invaders or exploiters.”

See “paranoia” discussion above. The Westerner thinks he will succeed by being liked but he never will be liked no matter how much he bows, gives, or flatters. See Obama policy.

“Bartering: Expect Bartering- Expect an Arab to ask for what he wants rather than merely what he needs. Work towards a satisfactory medium.”

But will you ever get there?

Personal Provisions: Some Arabs may ask for provisions that appear self-serving. Personal rewards are a normal part of negotiation in the Arab world.”

In other word, bribery.

“Commitment: Do not put your guests / hosts in a position to commit to a firm ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in front of other Arabs. Social pressure could compel your guest/host to agree to a commitment he has no intention of keeping.”


True, but after an agreement is reached that social pressure continues and subverts agreements. See, for example, the history of Israel-Egypt or Israel-Jordan relations and most of all Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

“Long Range Planning: Never accept a firm commitment farther than a week out at face value. Arab culture and the concept of fatalism are not conducive to long range planning and require at least a confirmation in the week prior to the planned event.”

“Compliance: To compel an Arab to keep a commitment which he appears not to be keeping, attempt an indirect approach first before direct confrontation. Having a peer gently remind him of his commitment, could prevent him from feeling an affront to his honor. Keep verbal commitments or risk reinforcing the perception that `America never keeps its promises.’”

We often see this employed, for example Obama in 2009 trying to get Arab states to back peace with Israel in order to press the Palestinians. Either the peer says “no,” as happened to Obama, or the targeted group says “no” to the peer.

The bottom line in practice is that the Western country (or Israel) is pressed to deliver or criticized for not observing every detail of an agreement while the other side is excused from doing so. In this framework, the former parties are always deemed to be at fault.

This 2006 army manual, despite its faults, makes a reasonable effort to start preparing American soldiers to deal with the Middle East. I shudder to think what an equivalent text prepared today would say.



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