from From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Bad Reputation: The Swift Decline of U.S. Soft Power in the Middle East

A woman stands next to an inflatable tank with U.S. President Donald Trump outside an art exhibition 'MonuMental' by the pseudonymous artist, Saint Hoax in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

What a late-night meal in Italy taught me about American Exceptionalism in the Arab world.

Last updated February 13, 2019

A woman stands next to an inflatable tank with U.S. President Donald Trump outside an art exhibition 'MonuMental' by the pseudonymous artist, Saint Hoax in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
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One of the perks of my job is that every now and then I get to spend time talking about the future of the Middle East in a place like Italy, as I did in early January. The night before the conference, after sharing a few bottles of red wine with some friends, I even had the occasion to confirm—at a small place near the Piazza del Popolo that had no discernible name but instead had a bright neon sign that simply read “Pizza/Gelato”—that the pizza in Rome runs a close second to the slices from my native Long Island.

But I didn’t just get a delicious meal that night. I also got an education on how the United States has recently managed to undermine its greatest foreign-policy assets: the norms, principles, and institutions that animate and organize U.S. society.

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As soon as I ordered a slice of the zucchini blossom—a revelation—I realized that the guys behind the counter were not Italians. Almost reflexively, I asked in Arabic, “Where are you from?” The gentleman handling my order smiled and declared that he was Egyptian, as was his colleague behind the counter. The guy who greeted me as I came through the door—wide-eyed at the veritable feast of pizza—turned out to be Tunisian.

I initially intended to eat quickly and return to my hotel; it had been a long day of travel, and the wine was starting to drag me down. Even with the relatively late start to the meeting the following morning (European conferences are different from American ones), I was looking forward to bed. My curiosity got the better of me, though, and I found a second wind. For the next hour or so, my new friends and I enjoyed a raucous conversation, covering every issue in the Middle East from the internecine political struggles in Tunis to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and back.

The full text of this article can be found here on CFR.org.

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