Dozens of disappointing Pew polls later, with the United States government having earmarked vast sums of money for public diplomacy, you have to wonder whether Washington hasn’t run up a blind alley in its desire to be popular among Arabs.
An obscure film-maker in California uploads a video condemning the Prophet Mohammad, and mobs storm the American consulate in Benghazi, killing an ambassador. In Cairo, demonstrators attack the fortified American Embassy building. Utterly irrelevant, evidently, is the fact that Egypt has benefited from billions of dollars in American aid for over three decades, or that the U.S. helped militarily overthrow Moammar Gadhafi last year.
However, the issue here is not the ungratefulness of the Arabs. There were doubtless quite a few Egyptians and Libyans unhappy with what took place this week. There were probably many more with no opinion whatsoever, who are neither fond of America nor the contrary, largely because America is absent from their daily life.
That doesn’t change the fact that anti-Americanism is more the norm than the exception in the Arab world, even if a vast majority of people never expresses that sentiment in violent ways. Yet who can deny that the mainstreaming of hostility toward America greatly facilitates the violence of minorities? At no time was this more obvious than after 9/11, whose 11th anniversary we commemorated this week, when initial shock soon made way for explanations, then implicit justifications, of the mass murder that had occurred.
It was 9/11, and the question posed at the time, “Why do they hate us,” that sent American officials scurrying for remedies to that hatred. Public diplomacy was given a bureaucratic face-lift, radio and television stations were opened broadcasting in Arabic, and despite the invasion of Iraq, many thought they had discovered the best therapy in the exit of President George W. Bush and his replacement by Barack Obama, who, fortuitously, had “Hussein” as a middle name.
Well, apparently not. Whether it is Obama or Bush, the American sirens calling for more love are apparently not having their effect. There are many reasons for this, but listing them would serve only to reinforce the argument that the Americans are to blame and must, therefore, reshape their conduct to please the Arabs. The Americans are indeed to blame in many ways, just as many in the Arab world are at fault, not least for their hypocrisy when it comes to America. However, the disconnect between America and the Arabs goes beyond perceptions of mutual behavior to include more systemic problems.
It’s a given that the powerful are disliked, and no country has been more powerful than the United States in recent decades. If you have the ability to change things, but no change comes, then you somehow become responsible for everything that goes wrong. The Americans were indeed the defenders of a debilitating status quo in the Middle East, but since 2011 they have been on the side of emancipatory change, despite intense uneasiness. Yet they remain perpetually disliked, with the poll figures sometimes edging up, sometimes down, but always reflecting deep ambiguity toward the superpower.
There is the Israel excuse, of course. Washington’s support for Israel is the knee-jerk pretext whenever an explanation is sought for why America is loathed by Arabs. There is a great deal to censure in Washington’s seemingly unquestioning devotion to Israel, frequently against America’s better interests, but let’s get a grip. For years numerous Arab countries have ruthlessly mistreated or manipulated the Palestinians and their cause, without provoking a discernibly negative reaction from Arab societies.
In light of this, perhaps we must seriously consider that the Arab world has so internalized its disapproval of the United States over time, integrating it perfectly into a prevailing sense of Arab misfortune and frustration, that anti-Americanism has become a constant of Arab political discourse, a crutch of sorts. That is not to say that America is blameless or the Arabs always wrong; it’s to say that the positivist belief among Americans that they can be loved simply by altering their actions and manners is naively overstated.
Being loved is not nearly as important as being respected, and in that regard the United States has been riding a roller coaster. When each post-Cold War administration has cast fundamental doubt on the Middle Eastern policies of its predecessor, holding it responsible for everything that is haywire in the region, expect Arabs to enjoy those catfights, but also to see their doubts about America reinforced. The reality is that when no clear, overriding strategy exists for America’s approach to the Middle East, administrations function more on the basis of domestic politics, calculations and rivalries, and these tend to be alien to the concerns of the Arab countries they influence.
Few Arabs held dear Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, but America fundamentally and advantageously overhauled its policy in the region during the 1970s under their stewardship, on the basis of a careful, long-term reading of Washington’s well-being. In contrast, though George W. Bush injected democracy into America’s regional perspectives, he soon recoiled on that front, before his legacy was overturned by Barack Obama, whose principal motive in the Middle East is to minimize American involvement.
The White House and the State Department would do best to save their public diplomacy funds and focus more on a redefining a lasting, bipartisan strategy toward the Middle East that can span antagonistic administrations. This has not been done in a serious way since 9/11, and it needs to be at this essential moment when Arab countries are facing momentous change. In politics, love is overrated.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.