We are all "Damnyankees" to them; we have in their eyes an almost smug confidence based on what appears to be easy success at everything: an artistic, economic, military cornucopia, which projected moral superiority to the world.
Then, a different kind of American with big ears and a resonant name, Barack Hussein Obama, made a speech in Egypt that may have begun to change the way they see us and we see them.
Shedding the skin of stereotypes so each can see the other in living color as human beings with real aspirations made difficult by real, accumulated problems would be easier if only two societies were engaged.
Achieving more honest, productive relationships with the world of Islam is complicated by the presence there of our best friend and closest ally, Israel, whose treatment of its Palestinian neighbors is a constant, throbbing source of anger and pain that so far has stymied peace initiatives.
A personal example of how stereotypes cloud the judgment of the best-educated and influential players was lunch years ago with Sheik Yamani, oil minister of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The sheik had made a speech in Atlanta blaming a Jewish financial, industrial and media conspiracy for binding U.S. diplomacy to Israel and blocking progress toward peace.
When I suggested that a more influential ally of Israel is the millions of Bible-reading, Bible-believing Protestants, especially in the South, who read in their Holy Book, "God curses those who curse Israel," Yamani's response was a slight, wordless smile, which I took to be dismissive.
Obama in his speech defined the bond between the United States and Israel as one "based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied."
"On the other hand," he added, "it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years, they've endured the pain of dislocation." He said Americans "will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."
Saudi King Abdullah told Obama during his visit to Riyadh that a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would be the "magic key" to all issues in the region, according to a leading pan-Arab newspaper, al-Hayat.
"We want from you a serious participation to solve the Palestinian issue and impose the solution if necessary," the Saudi monarch told Obama, according to the paper, which is owned by a nephew of the monarch. It did not elaborate.
Saudi Arabia was the driving force behind an Arab peace initiative first put forward by Arab states in 2002 offering Israel recognition in return for withdrawal from Arab land occupied in 1967 and a Palestinian state.
Israel has reacted coolly to the offer, renewed in 2007, saying a return of Palestinian refugees to areas now inside Israel would destroy the Jewish character of the state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Obama's call for an end to settlements pushing into Palestinian land.
If Obama is true to his pledge to be honest in relations with our Middle Eastern friends, it will compel him to remind Israel that despite its many wars, incursions and withdrawals, nothing has been settled: the permanent security of the Jewish state is no closer, the plight of the Palestinians in their miserable ghettos is shocking, and worse — a thorn in the paw of Islam that drives it mad.
In fact, the massive response to terrorist attacks has actually made Israel's security more fragile. For instance, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 in response to PLO cross-border raids created the militant Hezbollah. It was strengthened by Israel's most recent botched invasion.
Similarly, the harsh reprisals to the 1987 Palestinian intifada uprising coincided with the birth of Hamas, which wants Israel wiped off the face of the earth. It is the humiliation of subjugated people that drives them to strike out in desperate hatred beneath the banners of Hamas and Hezbollah.
Where is the Arabic Martin Luther King to lead his people to a place of peace and plenty in an atmosphere of mutual respect? There was only one, Anwar Sadat, but his people did not follow. They murdered him instead.
So peace in the Middle East will be won only by a multilateral slog through a torn and bloody history in which all sides are constrained by their own domestic demands, Obama among them.
After eight years of obvious favoritism to Israel, the president is signaling that a new administration wants to be even-handed. But how far can he push Israel when it has 14 million Southern Baptist allies — more than there are Jews in the entire world?
Only one fact is, or ought, to be clear. The historic policy of an eye for an eye does not work. It has blinded Arab and Jew from seeing the path to peace.