One of President Barack Obama’s main themes has been to convince Middle Eastern Islamists and Arabs generally that America is not their enemy. But the reason this strategy never works is that the radicals, be they Islamists or nationalists, know better. They see the United States as their enemy and they are right to do so.
No amount of sympathy, empathy, economic aid, apology, or appeasement will change this fact. Nor did such efforts succeed in making either Obama or the United States popular in such circles and the tens of millions of people influenced by them. The only thing surprising about all of this is that so few “experts” and politicians seem to comprehend it.
There are a number of reasons why this is true, though many people mistakenly think they must find just one factor that explains this reality. The causes of this enmity include:
–American policies. True, the United States has supported Israel and also many Arab regimes over the years—including countries like Morocco, Tunisia, post-Qadhafi-Libya, Egypt, pre-Hizballah Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, post-Saddam Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. The Islamists are equally unhappy with the U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority.
In short, U.S. support for any non-radical regime makes radicals angry and will always do so.
So what if the United States is nice to radical or Islamist regimes? Will that help?
No. The radicals still keep their goals—which include throwing U.S. influence out of the region and overthrowing its allies—no matter what Washington tries to do to please them. In the context of their ideology, they interpret U.S. concessions as signs of weakness which thus invite them to become even more militant and aggressive.
In Libya and Iraq, the governments have been pretty much directly installed by America. Thus, anyone who wants to overthrow those governments has a strong vested interest in hating and attacking Americans. The assassination of the ambassador to Libya wasn’t an accident or the result of a video but the inevitable and logical outcome of the political situation there.
As for Israel, giving that country less help would not change the radical view. Only if the United States had the same policy as Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhood might it be forgiven. Merely putting more space between the United States and Israel, to paraphrase Obama’s stated intention, won’t do it. Even brokering a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which isn’t going to happen of course, won’t help.
On the contrary, the radicals—especially Hamas, its Egyptian backers, Hizballah, and its Iranian backers—would go into a frenzy of denunciation and attempts to destroy the arrangements, which would be blamed on America. In the Middle East, peacemakers aren’t blessed, they’re assassinated.
The ultimate attempt to do away with these problems would be if U.S. policy would actually help Islamist regimes into power, give them money, and whitewash their extremism. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And we can all see the results have not been good, neither in terms of U.S. interests nor even in terms of U.S. popularity.
–American values and culture. While the mere fact that a highly secular, largely hedonistic, and generally free lifestyle is practiced in the United States raises the Islamists’ ire, there is far more involved here.
The United States is the world’s leading exporter of culture regarding everything from tee-shirts, films, and democratic ideas. As such, it inevitably subverts traditional Islamic society and poses as a rival alternative to the kind of system the Islamists want to impose. There is simply no way around this conflict. It is not an imagined one and remains in effect no matter what political policy a U.S. government follows.
–America as example to their own society. If the United States succeeds with a “Satanic” standpoint, how can Islamists persuade their people that Allah is on their side? America must be seen to fail, either through propaganda or by its actual collapse, at least in terms of the Middle East. Otherwise, the United States will remain an attractive model for many, prompting everything from immigration to political philosophy.
Many years ago in Istanbul I had dinner with the man who was the chief security officer in the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. I asked him what he thought was the critical detail that brought the seizure of the embassy and the holding of the staff as hostages. He replied that every day the new Islamist rulers saw long lines of Iranians outside the building applying for visas to go to America or, perhaps they thought, plotting the regime’s overthrow. It was not the unpopularity but rather the popularity of the United States and its style or standard of living that frightened them. Something must be done. A break must be provoked; hatred must be stoked.
Obviously a distinction can be drawn between, on one hand, winning over the radicals and their supporters, and winning over ordinary Arabs. Yet it is also true that the masses have also been fed anti-Americanism for decades, that their worldview, news, and spin comes from a radical direction, be the source Islamists, militant Arab nationalists, traditionalist clerics, or rulers who have good relations with the United States but demagogically use anti-Americanism to shore up their reputation as militants in the Arab or Islamic causes.
In other words, no matter what the United States does it will not be interpreted—especially by the masses–based on the U.S. government’s statements or intentions but through the filter of a very different culture and worldview that has a good deal of hostility in it and is prone to xenophobia and conspiracy theories.
By the same token, to be hated the United States doesn’t have to do something wrong. It just has to be itself and pursue its own legitimate interests. This is a point that many Americans—including “experts” and leaders—seem to have great difficulty in grasping. What you say is not what someone else hears; what you do is not what someone else sees.
Finally, the radicals—which include a large portion of governments, political movements, teachers, clerics, and journalists—will deliberately do everything they can to discredit the United States and foment popular hatred against it. That includes using anything they can, be it a video, the slaying of Usama bin Ladin, accusations of atrocities, and so on, whether the specific accusations are true or false, consciously misinterpreted or misunderstood on ideological grounds.
They will never run out of reasons to hate America and ammunition for trying to convince others to do so. One conclusion from this assessment is that the traditional arsenal of diplomacy—credibility, deterrence, power—is what’s important, not courting popularity. The same principle applies to allies, of course, who must feel that their friend or patron is strong and reliable.
Such an approach has not been the one pursued during the last four years. As for the next four years, the vote count is not in yet.