Understanding Arab anti-Americanism.

Understanding Arab anti-Americanism.

Understanding Arab anti-Americanism.

Events beyond our borders.
April 23 2004 6:44 PM

Democracy Inaction

Understanding Arab anti-Americanism.

According to a Wednesday Associated Press story on growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak believes that "because of the war in Iraq and Washington's continued support of Israel, hatred of Americans in the Arab world had reached new heights."

Do Arabs really hate Americans more now than ever before? Maybe, but it's hard to know for sure. In liberal democracies, the most effective way of quantifying public opinion is through popular elections. But there are no free elections in the Arab world, because Arab leaders do not want to give Arabs a voice in their own governance. So, when a leader like Mubarak conveys the message that Arabs hate Americans, we should remember that he is not a pollster but a dictator, and when he wants to know what his people think, he will tell them what to think. Right now, it is convenient for Mubarak and his ilk that Arabs should think all of their problems stem from Americans.

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Actually, as many Arabs will tell you, they like Americans; they just don't like the current government's foreign policies. Of course, Arab displeasure with U.S. leaders hardly started with the Bush White House. As Noam Chomsky pointed out two years ago—or well before anti-Americanism reached its current heights—President Eisenhower talked about the "hatred against us [in the Arab world]" way back in 1958.

That's a long time to be hated. The last time the United States was unequivocally loved was in 1919 when Woodrow Wilson spoke about the right to national self-determination. The Arabs saw in that very American principle the prospects of their freedom from colonial rule. As the century wore on, it became clear that the United States supported—albeit very ambivalently at first—the Jews' as well as the Arabs' right to national self-determination in Palestine. As we know, this didn't sit well with many Arabs.

Probably the most egregiously sinister policy the United States pursued in the Middle East was engineering the 1953 coup that replaced Iran's Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh with the shah. The Middle East is important because of oil, and at the time it was yet another Cold War battlefield where we could exercise our influence against the Soviets. So, after the CIA supported the 1952 coup that eventually brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt, U.S. enthusiasm for the colonel cooled when he bought weapons from the Soviets in 1955. Nonetheless, in 1956 the United States handed Nasser his greatest—indeed only—unqualified triumph at Suez.

After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the Israelis, along with the French and British, attacked Egypt. Nasser would have lost the war and almost certainly his life had President Eisenhower not ordered those three American allies to back down. Arranging a victory of that order for Nasser—a victory that made him the Arab world's greatest modern hero—would seem to be about as pro-Arab as you can get, and yet only two years later, Eisenhower was wondering why the Arabs hated us so much. One obvious reason is that by chasing out the two Western powers that had been the region's hate targets for over a century, the United States became a kind of surrogate for anticolonial sentiment, regardless of whether or not it had the same imperial ambitions as France and Britain. In other words, pro-Arab U.S. policies don't seem to put much of a dent in Arab anti-Americanism.

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So, what drives anti-Americanism? The Arab world complains that the United States supports corrupt and oppressive Arab regimes. This is true. For example, the United States gives $2 billion a year to Egypt. While U.S. policymakers should definitely tie aid to democratic reforms, it is far from clear that Egypt would be less oppressive or corrupt without that money. After all, Syria and Iran oppress their populations without U.S. assistance. Yasser Arafat's corrupt and oppressive Palestinian Authority enjoys the patronage of the United States, but there are very few Arabs who will publicly say that the United States should stop supporting Arafat. In fact, we know that Arabs were very angry when Washington demanded that Arafat appoint a prime minister. And, of course, the United States famously supported Saddam Hussein. However, once Washington got the United Nations to impose sanctions against Iraq, Arabs held the United States, rather than Saddam, responsible for starving Iraqis to death. And as President Mubarak is likely to remind us, when the United States deposes a corrupt and oppressive leader like Saddam, it only makes Arabs hate the United States.

Is Arab anti-Americanism just an irrational phenomenon manufactured by presidents-for-life, kings, and military dictators who rule their countries without legitimate political authority? Yes, but there are also really bad U.S. policies in the Arab world—none of which seem to trouble most Arabs.

Syria has occupied Lebanon since 1990, but until last year, U.S. officials didn't even use the word "occupation" publicly, for fear of offending Damascus. Among other reasons for this position, the State Department argues that keeping Syria happy will bring it back to the negotiating table with Israel. In this way, Washington has sacrificed Lebanese self-determination in the fanciful hope that appeasing Syria's authoritarian regime will win Israel security. It is an awful policy, and yet there are very few Arabs outside of Lebanon who dislike it. Indeed, even inside Lebanon, there are Arabs very critical of the United States, like Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who thrive because of the policy. Without its Syrian patron running the affairs of Lebanon, Hezbollah would have neither the freedom nor the cover to conduct terrorist operations.

Another miserable policy has been Washington's relative silence during the 15 years that Sudan's Islamist government has waged jihad against the country's non-Muslim population. Estimates suggest that since 1989, somewhere between 1 million and 2 million people have been killed. Why has the United States been quiet about this? One reason is that Sudan controls the flow of Egypt's water supply, the Nile, and U.S. officials are reluctant to aggravate our friends in Cairo. When the United States has made noise, the typical Arab response has been that Washington has no business interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state—unless of course that state is Israel.

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Of course, it is because of Washington's ostensibly unbalanced support of Israel that the United States is genuinely loathed in the region. To be sure, the United States maintains that the state of Israel has a right to exist. At different times, as when the international community recently mourned the deaths of two Hamas leaders whose explicit goal was the destruction of Israel, it is not obvious that the rest of the world believes Israel has a right to exist. Similarly, the Arab and European outrage over President Bush's announcement that Palestinians have no "right of return" suggests that many people outside of Israel and the United States do not really believe in a two-state solution, even if they say they do. When much of the world seems not to mean what it says, U.S. policy cannot help but seem to be totally biased toward Israel.

However, over the last several decades, U.S. officials have believed that both Israelis and Palestinians were equally deserving of peace, and Americans have spent a great deal of time and prestige trying to broker a fair and just agreement between the two parties. Those Americans have operated under the (correct) belief that peace is in the interests of the Palestinian people. The problem is that peace is perhaps not in the interests of the Palestinian leadership.

The difference between Arab leadership and the Arab people is the key to understanding Arab anti-Americanism. When Arabs say that they like Americans but not American policies, they are saying they do not understand the basic principle of representative government: The American people are their government. When we disagree with the policies our government enacts, we hire a new one. Arabs do not enjoy this privilege.

Anti-Americanism is how Arab leaders play the Arab people and the United States against each other to preserve their own hides. There is no incentive to be anything but anti-American, and it is very dangerous not to follow the pack. In Iraq, Arabs who work with Americans to rebuild their country are targeted for death. Anti-Americanism is the coin of the realm and has been for many years now. It is not growing. When Americans talk about rising Arab anti-Americanism, we are saying we do not understand how Arab regimes work. In effect, we are collaborating with dictators who will not allow Arabs a voice in their own governance.

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The remarkable fact is that there are Arabs who like America. I don't just mean those who cherish our bloody action movies and blond pop stars or want to immigrate to the United States because there is little work or chance for advancement at home. Rather, I'm referring to those Arabs whose admiration of the United States as an embodiment of justice and liberty is so idealized that it sometimes seems to bear no relationship to an America that, as we admit, has made many errors around the world.

For instance, a Syrian friend CCs me on e-mails he writes to U.S. Embassies or to American officials here in the States. This came from him last week after Ted Kennedy compared Iraq to Vietnam:

Dear Senator Ted Kennedy,
I am ... from Syria and I am 56 years old. I still remember when your brother was assassinated in 1963 and we all cried. He had a dream for the whole world not just for America. We suffered under totalitarian regimes in the Middle East for the whole of our lives. We look for America as our Savior. Please Mr. Kennedy you have to know that America has a burden in freeing the other peoples of the world from tyranny. I have no right to comment on internal U.S. issues but as a citizen of the world I have the right to ask the American legislators to help other peoples in the world because this is the principle that America stands for.

Arab anti-Americanism is easy to get used to—it's been around for close to half a century. What's hard is living up to the Arabs' best expectations of America.