Hubris is Our Fatal Flaw

In classical Greek tragedy, hubris was often a fatal shortcoming that brought about the fall of the tragic hero. Typically, overconfidence led the hero to attempt to overstep the boundaries of human limitations and assume a godlike status (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

Future historians writing about America’s Middle East foreign policy during the last quarter century should include a lengthy chapter entitled “American Hubris.”

Hubris is our fatal flaw. It speaks to our: arrogance; inability to see others as our equals or care about their perceptions; and flawed judgments about our capabilities.

The last decade of the 20th century was a heady time. We believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War left us as the world’s sole superpower. Building on this, we mobilized an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, convened the Madrid Peace Conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, held the White House signing of the Oslo Accords. American hubris fueled the feeling that our leadership made all things now possible.

Two years into the Oslo process, peace clearly wasn’t happening. Settlements were increasing, alongside Palestinian unemployment and frustration. When I sent Clinton a memo outlining the damaging consequences of Israeli behaviors, his “peace team’s” response was, in effect, “Leave it to us, we know what we’re doing.” They didn’t—and the “peace process” died on their watch.

Then came the George W. Bush administration’s response to September 11th. While the world stood ready to collectively address the scourge of terrorism, our hubris led us on a crusade not only to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to reshape them into democratic states to “spread democracy throughout the Middle East.”

The hubris of this neo-conservative vision blinded them to repeated failure. They dismissed the Iraqi insurgency as “a handful of disgruntled supporters of the former regime.”  They scorned major allies in Europe who refused to support our adventurism as “the old Europe.” And when polling demonstrated Iraqis’ fury with our occupation, they deliberately misrepresented the findings, saying we were winning Iraqis’ hearts and minds. In their hubris, they couldn’t admit reality.

During the Bush years, we polled across the Arab World to understand what Arabs thought about America. President Bush suggested that Arabs hated us and our values of democracy and freedom. Yet, in country after country, we learned that Arabs loved our values, products, accomplishments, and people—but not the way we treated them. Our policies, not our values, dragged down our favorability.

President Obama began his term determined to change direction, with his Cairo speech addressing hubris and promising understanding. But he didn’t deliver.

On occasion, he would ask me about our polling. Despite an early bounce, US favorability declined to Bush levels because of: US backtracking on Israel-Palestine, the surrendering of Iraq to a pro-Iran coalition, and the quiet but feverish negotiation of an Iran nuclear deal without addressing Iran’s regional meddling. The last time he asked, I told him about the sharp decline. His response: “Their expectations were too high.” My reply: “You set those high expectations.”

Donald Trump took hubris to new heights, with his “only I can fix it” mindset. Alienating allies by unilaterally breaking international agreements and proposing a “take it or leave it solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Trump left Arabs to navigate the dizzying roller coaster ride he created.

President Joseph Biden inherited this chaos. His minimal goals for Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East remain mostly unfulfilled. His animus toward Saudi Arabia, which plays well with his base, couples anti-Saudi bias with an obvious double standard—obvious, that is, to the Arab World. Our continuing claim of moral and political leadership in the world, despite our disastrous legacy in Iraq, blind defense of Israel, and muddled response to the Arab Spring, is yet another sign of our hubris.

More could be said about these US administrations and US policy around the world, but the bottom line is that our relationships in the Arab World have been distorted by hubris. We don’t know the region, nor appear to care about its peoples, their wants, perceptions of us and our treatment of them. Our view through the narrow lens of self-interest (and, because of domestic politics, that of Israel) causes us to blunder, needlessly insult, and fail. Because of hubris, we can’t understand these failures as resulting from our own behaviors and instead find fault in those whom we’ve slighted.

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