As my grocer said: Thank you Mr Clinton for the kind words

Talk of an "international terrorist conspiracy" is as exotic as the Arab belief in the "Zionist conspiracy"
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IF THERE is one thing that enrages the Arab world about the United States government - apart from its betrayal of the principles of the peace process, its unconditional support for Israel, its enthusiasm for sanctions that are killing thousands of Iraqi civilians and its continued presence in Saudi Arabia - it is the administration's habit of telling Arabs how much it loves them.

Before every air strike, the President assures his future victims how much he admires them. Ronald Reagan told the Libyan people that America regarded them as friends - then he unleashed his bombers on Tripoli and Benghazi. George Bush waffled on about Iraq's history as the birthplace of civilisation and America's friendship for ordinary Iraqis - before bombing every town and city in Iraq. And this week, as his missiles had just left their ships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, there was Bill Clinton telling the people of the Middle East that Islam was one of the world's great religions.

As my Beirut grocer put it to me yesterday - his smile as crooked as his message - "it's good of Mr Clinton to tell me about my religion. It's always nice to be informed that religion doesn't condone murder. Thank you, Mr Clinton."

My grocer was not being polite. Clinton's admonition from the White House - "no religion condones the murder of innocent men, women and children" - came across in the Middle East as patronising as well as insulting, coming as it did from a man who is embroiled in a sex scandal. "That filthy man" is how he was called by an Egyptian over the phone to me yesterday, although the Arabs have not grasped the complexities of Mr Clinton's adventures with Miss Lewinsky (mercifully, there is no word for "oral sex" in Arabic).

What was immediately grasped in the region yesterday, however, was the ease with which the Americans could once again choose an enemy without disclosing any evidence for his guilt and then turn journalists and television commentators into their cheerleaders. "I was so sickened by the constant use of the word `terrorism' that I turned to French radio," a Palestinian acquaintance told me at midday. "And what happened? All I heard in French was `terroristes, terroristes, terroristes,'"

He was right. Almost all the reporting out of America was based on the accuracy of the "compelling evidence" - so "compelling" that we haven't been vouchsafed a clue as to what it is - that links Osama bin Laden to the ferocious bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Several times yesterday, I had to interrupt live radio interviews to point out that the journalists in London and Washington were adopting the US government's claims without question.

The plots in which bin Laden is now supposed to have been involved, according to the Americans, are now taking on Gone With the Wind proportions. Bin Laden, we are told, was behind not only the US embassy bombings, but also the earlier bombing of US troops in Dhahran, anti-government violence in Egypt, the New York bombings (for which the culprits are all supposedly sentenced and jailed), and now - wait for it - an attempt to kill the Pope. Is this really conceivable? The fact that all this was taken at face value by so many reporters probably says as much about the state of journalism as it does about American paranoia.

The use of the word "terrorist" - where Arabs who murder the innocent are always called "terrorists" whereas Israeli killers who slaughter 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque or assassinate their prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, are called "extremists" - is only part of the problem. "Terrorist" is a word that avoids all meaning. The who and the how are of essential importance. But the "why" is something the West usually prefers to avoid. Not once yesterday - not in a single press statement, press conference or interview - did a US leader or diplomat explain why the enemies of America hate America. Why is bin Laden so angry with the United States? Why - not just who and how - but why did anyone commit the terrible atrocities in Africa?

Clearly, someone blew up the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam. They may have been suicide bombers, but they must have known that they were slaughtering the innocent. Their deeds were wicked. But they were not, as one US diplomat called them, mindless. Whether or not bin Laden was involved, there was a reason for these dreadful deeds. And the reason almost certainly lies with US policy - or lack of policy - towards the Middle East. "How can America protect its embassies?" a US radio station asked me last week. When I suggested it could adopt fairer policies in the region, I was admonished for not answering a question about "terrorism".

For what really lies at the root of Arab reaction to the US attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan is that they come when America's word has never been so low; when the Arab sense of betrayal has never been greater. America's continued military presence in Saudi Arabia, its refusal to bring Israel to heel as it continues to build Jewish settlements on Arab land in violation of the Oslo agreement, its almost lip-smacking agreement to continue sanctions which are clearly culling the civilian population of Iraq - Arab fury at this catastrophe is one reason why a normally compassionate people responded with so little sympathy to the bombing of the US embassies. After all this, being lectured by Mr Clinton and then bombed by him was like getting a kick in the teeth from a man who has already stabbed you in the back.

Bin Laden or not, it is a fair and fearful bet that the embassy bombings were organised by - or at the least involved - Arabs. And the culprits should be found and brought to justice. But Cruise missiles do not represent due process, as Mr Clinton knows all too well. Talk of a massive "international terrorist conspiracy" is as exotic as the perennial Arab belief in the "international Zionist conspiracy". Bin Laden is protected in Afghanistan by the Taliban. But the Taliban are paid, armed and inspired by Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia is supposed to be America's best friend in the Gulf, so close an ally that US troops are still stationed there (which is, of course, Mr bin Laden's grouse). Could it be that powerful people in Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist and undemocratic state if ever there were one, support Mr bin Laden and share his desire for a "jihad" against America? This is one question the Americans should be asking.

Bin Laden himself was obsessed for many months with the massacre of Lebanese civilians by the Israelis at the UN base at Qana in southern Lebanon in April 1996. Why had Mr Clinton not condemned this "terrorist act", he asked? (In fact, Bill Clinton called it a "tragedy", as if it was some form of natural disaster - the Israelis said it was a "mistake" but the UN concluded it wasn't).

Why had the perpetrators not been brought to justice, bin Laden wanted to know? It is odd now to compare bin Laden's words with those of Bill Clinton just 48 hours ago. They talked much the same language. And now their language has grown far more ferocious. "The United States wants peace, not conflict," Mr Clinton said. He is likely to find little peace in the Middle East for the rest of his presidency.