The Real Roots of Arab Anti-Americanism
by Barry Rubin
From Foreign Affairs, November/December 2002
Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest books are The Tragedy of the Middle East and Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East.
Since last year's attacks on New York and Washington, the conventional wisdom about the motivation behind such deadly terrorism has gelled. The violence, we are often told, was a reaction to misguided U.S. policies. For years, certain American actions -- such as the country's support for Israel and for unpopular, oppressive Arab regimes -- had supposedly produced profound grievances throughout the Middle East. Those grievances came to a boil over time, and finally spilled over on September 11. The result was more than 3,000 American deaths.
Although anti-Americanism is genuinely widespread among Arab governments and peoples, however, there is something seriously misleading in this account. Arab and Muslim hatred of the United States is not just, or even mainly, a response to actual U.S. policies -- policies that, if anything, have been remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim over the years. Rather, such animus is largely the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups within Arab society, groups that use anti-Americanism as a foil to distract public attention from other, far more serious problems within those societies.
This distinction should have a profound impact on American policymakers. If Arab anti-Americanism turns out to be grounded in domestic maneuvering rather than American misdeeds, neither launching a public relations campaign nor changing Washington's policies will affect it. In fact, if the United States tries to prove to the Arab world that its intentions are nonthreatening, it could end up making matters even worse. New American attempts at appeasement would only show radicals in the Middle East that their anti-American strategy has succeeded and is the best way to win concessions from the world's sole superpower.
THE BLAME GAME
For years now, anti-Americanism has served as a means of last resort by which failed political systems and movements in the Middle East try to improve their standing. The United States is blamed for much that is bad in the Arab world, and it is used as an excuse for political and social oppression and economic stagnation. By assigning responsibility for their own shortcomings to Washington, Arab leaders distract their subjects' attention from the internal weaknesses that are their real problems. And thus rather than pushing for greater privatization, equality for women, democracy, civil society, freedom of speech, due process of law, or other similar developments sorely needed in the Arab world, the public focuses instead on hating the United States.
What makes this strategy remarkable, however, is the reality of past U.S. policy toward the region. Obviously, the United States, like all countries, has tried to pursue a foreign policy that accords with its own interests. But the fact remains that these interests have generally coincided with those of Arab leaders and peoples. For example, the United States may have had its own reasons for saving Kuwait from annexation by Iraq's secular dictatorship in 1991 -- mainly to preserve cheap oil. But U.S. policy was still, in effect, pro-Kuwaiti, pro-Muslim, and pro-Arab. After all, Washington could have used the war as a pretext to seize Kuwait's oil fields for itself or demand lower prices or political concessions in exchange for fighting off Iraq. Instead, U.S. leaders did none of these things and sought the widest possible support for their actions among Arabs and Muslims.
When the United States has involved itself in conflicts in the region, furthermore, it has usually been during fights pitting moderates against either secular Arab forces or radical Islamist groups that even most Muslims consider deviant, if not heretical. And in such conflicts, the United States has generally backed parties with a strong claim to Arab or Islamic legitimacy. This trend can be traced back to the 1950s, when Egypt, Syria, and later Iraq became dictatorships friendly to Moscow and menaced Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Even then, the United States, hoping to demonstrate its sympathy for Arab nationalism, sought good relations with Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and prevented his overthrow by the United Kingdom, France, and Israel in the 1956 Suez war.
Washington maintained its pro-Arab policy throughout the Cold War, worried that if it antagonized Arab regimes they would side with the Soviet Union. For this reason, the United States wooed Egypt, accepted Syria's hegemony over Lebanon, and did little to punish states that sponsored terrorism. The United States also became Islam's political patron in the region, since traditionalist Islam, then threatened by radical Arab nationalism, was seen as a bulwark against avowedly secular communism.
Nonetheless, during the Cold War it became popular to portray U.S. policy as anti-Arab -- despite the evidence to the contrary. Such rhetoric became a convenient way for radical regimes to establish their own legitimacy and to brand their moderate opponents as Western puppets. Radical Arab regimes (whether nationalist or Islamist) also accused U.S.-backed moderate governments of being antidemocratic or of ignoring human rights, even though the radical regimes -- such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and revolutionary Iran -- had far worse records themselves.
Indeed, internal conflicts in the Arab world have posed impossible dilemmas for U.S. policymakers. When the United States helps friendly governments such as Egypt's or Saudi Arabia's, it is accused of sabotaging revolutionary movements against them. As soon as Washington starts to pressure Arab governments into improving their positions on democracy or human rights, however, it is accused of acting in an imperialist manner -- as happened this summer, when the White House threatened to block any increase in aid to Cairo after Egypt jailed Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent human rights advocate. If Washington did nothing and friendly regimes were overthrown, the radical conquerors would be unlikely to show any gratitude for U.S. neutrality.
All the same, when conflicts in the region did erupt during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s pitting Islamists against more moderate governments, the United States avoided taking sides. During Iran's 1979 revolution, for example, although Washington clearly wanted the shah to survive, it nonetheless restrained him from taking tougher actions to save his throne. And once the revolution had succeeded, President Jimmy Carter then sought to conciliate the new Islamist government. (It was American contact with moderates in the new regime, in fact, that provoked the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979.) Although the United States did not want Iran to spread its radical Islamism throughout the Muslim world, it nonetheless sought the best possible relations with Tehran in order to minimize its cooperation with Moscow. And even though relations subsequently soured, Washington has never seriously tried to overthrow the Islamic government; on the contrary, it has periodically sought detente with Tehran.
In fact, the only time the United States has ever become directly involved in a dispute between a government and Islamist revolutionaries was in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation -- and in that case, Washington backed the rebels.
A brief survey of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, furthermore, reveals just how hard Washington has tried to win the support of Arabs in particular and Muslims in general. Consider the following:
In 1973, the United States rescued Egypt at the end of the Arab-Israeli War by forcing a cease-fire on Israel. Washington then became Cairo's patron in the 1980s, providing it with massive arms supplies and aid while asking for little in return.
The United States also saved Yasir Arafat from Israel in Beirut in 1982, when Washington arranged safe passage for the Palestinian leader and pressed Tunisia to give him sanctuary. Washington's support for Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization overlooked a history of Palestinian terrorism and anti-Americanism as well as the plo's alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the 1990s, moreover, despite the Palestinians' backing of Iraq during the Gulf War, the United States became the Palestinians' sponsor in the peace process with Israel, pushing for an agreement that would create a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
Over the years, the United States has also spent blood and treasure saving Muslims in Afghanistan from the Soviets; in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from Iraq; and in Bosnia and Kosovo from Yugoslavia. It has supported Muslim Pakistan against India and Muslim Turkey against Greece. Washington has courted Damascus, even tacitly accepting Syria's control over Lebanon. The United States supported Arab Iraq against Persian Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and also refrained from overthrowing Saddam Hussein after pushing him out of Kuwait in 1991.
For decades, the United States kept its forces out of the Persian Gulf to avoid offending Arabs and Muslims there. They entered, in fact, only when invited in to protect Arab oil tankers against Iran and to save Kuwait from Iraq. In Somalia, where no vital U.S. interests were at stake, the United States engaged in a humanitarian effort to help a Muslim people suffering from anarchy and murderous warlords.
The United States showed moderation when U.S. oil companies' holdings were nationalized by Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other countries, and prices rose steeply after 1973; Washington did not try to overthrow the offending regimes or force them to lower prices. Nor did it take advantage of the Soviet Union's demise to dominate the Levant or take revenge against former Soviet allies there. Similarly, it did not use its overwhelming military strength to dominate the Persian Gulf region after 1990 or to force any local regime to change its policies. And when al Qaeda blew up two U.S. embassies in eastern Africa in 1998, causing an immense loss of life, Washington responded with only very limited retaliation. Finally, since September 11, American leaders have taken pains to remind the world (and the American public) that Islam and Arabs are not U.S. enemies.
The overall tally, in fact, is staggering: during the last half-century, in 11 of 12 major conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, Muslims and secular forces, or Arabs and non-Arabs, the United States has sided with the former group.1 U.S. backing for Israel has been the sole significant exception to this rule. Yet what credit has Washington received for its aid? Arab anti-American radicals have distorted the record, ignoring all the positive examples and focusing only on U.S. support for Israel. Even Arab moderates, direct beneficiaries of U.S. aid, virtually never express gratitude for benign American measures -- or even mention them at all.
AN ENEMY OF CONVENIENCE
Why has the real record been so disregarded in the Middle East? There are several explanations. First, whatever the extent of Americans' failure to understand the region, Middle Easterners' inability to understand the United States has been greater. Throughout the region, leaders and movements have always expected Washington to try to conquer them and wipe out its enemies -- since, after all, this is what the locals would do if they controlled the world's most powerful country.
Second, it is important to remember how tightly information is controlled in the Middle East. It is hardly surprising that the masses, shut off from accurate data and constantly fed antagonistic views, have grown hostile to the United States. Those who could present a more accurate picture of America are discouraged from doing so by peer pressure, censorship, and fear of being labeled U.S. agents.
Third, Washington's real record is constantly distorted. The United States, for example, is blamed for the suffering of Muslims whom it protected in Kosovo and Bosnia. U.S. humanitarian efforts in Somalia are portrayed as part of an imperialistic, anti-Muslim campaign defeated by heroic local resistance.
Fourth, the real nature of the threats from which the United States protected Arabs is downplayed. Take, for example, Saddam Hussein, who has started two wars, killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Arabs, looted and vandalized Kuwait, threatened his neighbors, tortured and repressed his own people, used chemical weapons against opponents and civilians, fired missiles against population centers, and tried to develop nuclear arms so as to dominate the region. Despite his record, Arabs throughout the Middle East are constantly told by their leaders that the United States is the party responsible for Iraq's problems, and that Washington is the one seeking to dominate the Persian Gulf.
Finally, there is the attempt to reduce all American policy to a single issue: U.S. support for Israel. Israel's true nature and policies are also distorted as part of this picture. This latter element is critical to the salience of the first in anti-American rhetoric, for if one believes that Israel is an evil force seeking to dominate the Middle East, kill Arabs, and destroy Islam, it would follow that one would view American aid to Israel as a supreme evil. The truth, however, is that the United States has merely helped Israel survive efforts from Arab neighbors to remove it from the map. The U.S.-Israel relationship was in fact quite ambivalent for most of Israel's first quarter-century of existence, with the United States generally refusing to supply arms or other aid. The link only intensified in the face of hostile actions by Arab states, which aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and sponsored anti-American terrorism. And despite such hostility, the U.S. goal has always remained a mutually acceptable peace agreement between the Arabs and Israel that would ensure good American relations with both sides.
Radical forces in the Arab world have always rejected a peaceful solution, however, because they do not want Israel to survive or the region to become more stable. Such a result, after all, would undermine the radicals' chances of seizing power.
As this point suggests, Middle Eastern radicals have opposed the United States not because it has not worked hard enough to bring about a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but for the opposite reason: because the radicals want to ensure that Washington fails to do so. This is why terrorism has always increased whenever it seemed that the diplomatic pursuit of peace might succeed. Hence Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, urged by the United States, was greeted in the region not as a step toward ending occupation or achieving peace, but as a sign of weakness and a signal that Israel's enemies should escalate violence against it. The September 11 attacks, meanwhile, were planned at a time when the peace process seemed closest to success. It is no accident that Middle Eastern anti-Americanism peaked at the very moment when the United States was proposing to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
THE ENEMY YOU LOVE TO HATE
The basic reason for the prevalence of Arab anti-Americanism, then, is that it has been such a useful tool for radical rulers, revolutionary movements, and even moderate regimes to build domestic support and pursue regional goals with no significant costs. Indeed, as a strategy, anti-Americanism seems to offer something for everyone. For radical Islamists, anti-Americanism has been a way to muster popular favor despite the fact that all attempts (other than in Iran) to stage a theocratic revolution have been rejected by the masses and hence failed. The Islamists have turned instead to fostering xenophobia, transforming their battle from one among Muslims into a struggle between Muslims as a whole and heathens who purportedly hate Islam and seek to destroy Muslims.
As mentioned before, anti-Americanism is equally useful to oppressive Arab regimes, since it allows them to deflect attention from their own many failings. Instead of responding to demands for democracy, human rights, higher living standards, less corruption and incompetence, or new leadership, rulers blame America for their own societies' ills and refocus popular anger against it. Regimes can demand national unity and shut up reformers in the face of the supposed American "threat." And by seizing the anti-Americanism card, Arab governments make sure their opponents will not use it against them.
Hence Egypt and Saudi Arabia have obtained American weapons and protection over the years but promoted popular anti-Americanism through government policies and their state-controlled media. Iraq has used anti-Americanism as a weapon in its battle to reenter the Arab world, escape sanctions, and rebuild its military might. If America can be blamed for murdering Iraqis through sanctions, who will remember Iraq's seizure of Kuwait?
Iran, meanwhile, uses anti-Americanism to push for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf and to draw attention from Iran's own major handicaps in the Arab world: the fact that it is a Shi`a, not Sunni, regime, and ethnically Persian, not Arab. Anti-Americanism is also a convenient way for Iranian hard-liners to delegitimize domestic reformers (by portraying them as U.S. agents). And Syria, for its part, has used anti-Americanism to distract its population from the reforms that President Bashar al-Assad promised but then quickly abandoned.
For Palestinian leaders, anti-Americanism has functioned as a smoke screen to cover up for their own rejection of compromise peace offers from Israel and as a way to mobilize Arab backing. By claiming that U.S. support for Israel is the cause of anti-Americanism among their populations, furthermore, Palestinian leaders, along with other Arab politicians, seek to obtain more U.S. concessions. This strategy also gives these leaders an excuse for rejecting American policies they disagree with; Arab leaders can claim their hands are tied by the passions of their masses (although public sentiment never stops them from tough action when such leaders feel their own interests are truly at stake).
Finally, Arab anti-Americanism has proved useful for others in the Middle East besides politicians. It allows intellectuals and journalists to vent their anger against a government-approved target (namely, Washington) rather than risk criticizing injustices or failures at home. And anti-Americanism even proves useful for the public itself. Holding the United States responsible for everything wrong in their lives helps explain how the world works and why life never seems to improve for them.
There are, of course, legitimate Arab and Muslim grievances against the United States. But put into accurate perspective -- and compared to the legitimate anti-American complaints of people in other regions, not to mention American grievances with Arab states -- the level of violence or hatred such grievances provoke in the Middle East seems grossly disproportionate. In fact, Arabs and Muslims have suffered far less from U.S. policies than many other groups or peoples. Yet virtually none of these other peoples evinces anything like the level of anti-American sentiment that exists in the Middle East or commits acts of terrorism against the United States.
Arabs have particularly little to complain about when it comes to economic exploitation. Oil-producing states have reaped great wealth from their product, and U.S. influence over their economies is limited. It is therefore hard to argue that Arabs are poor because Americans are rich, nor can it be claimed that Arab raw materials are sold at low prices in exchange for high-priced Western industrial goods -- a frequent complaint from countries with only cacao or tin to sell.
Another grievance that has little or no reality in the Middle East compared to other areas is the complaint that the United States makes or breaks governments there. Since the pro-shah Iranian coup of 1953, there has not been a single case of U.S. covert intervention to change a Middle Eastern regime. Only in Iraq has the United States made an attempt to overthrow a government -- and so far, not very effectively.
The fact is that most other countries in the world -- including many in Europe -- have an equal or better case for being angry at the United States than do those in the Middle East. Yet only there does this hatred take on such an intensive and popular form. Nowhere else, for example, can one find popular and governmental support for terrorist attacks against the United States.
This fact points to one other explanation for Arab anti-Americanism. Such sentiment is a useful way to disparage a set of attractive ideas linked to America -- such as political freedom or modernization -- that might otherwise take hold in the region. In this sense, anti-Americanism becomes a response to globalization and Westernization.
OF MOUSE OR MAN?
One final point about Arab anti-Americanism should be mentioned. At its heart, such rage invokes a contradictory vision of its target. To justify outrage against the United States, the enemy must be portrayed as a bully. But to encourage challenges against it, the United States must also be depicted as a weakling. Revolutionaries and radical states are frustrated by the fact that too many Arabs and Muslims already fear the United States or even see its friendship as desirable. If America is so powerful, why fight it or those it protects?
To be effective, anti-Americanism must therefore persuade masses and leaders that the United States is simultaneously horrible and helpless, and that it will not do anything if it is attacked, ridiculed, or disregarded. Powerless against their own dictators and dysfunctional polities and dissatisfied with their societies, every Arab or Muslim may at least feel it possible to spit on the United States and get away with it.
Consequently, anti-Americanism is most encouraged not by a belief that the United States is too tough but that it is weak, meek, and defeatable. Far from attacking the United States because it is really a big bully, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and others have urged attacks to prove that the United States was a paper tiger. Unsurprisingly, these same leaders have made it clear that, in their view, power -- not popularity -- is the most important factor for political success. As Syria's late president, Hafiz al-Assad, once noted, "It is important to gain respect, rather than sympathy." Bin Laden has agreed, commenting that people always back the side that looks strongest. Western weakness in confronting Hitler, wrote Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Hamdoon, encouraged Nazi aggression (as well, presumably, as Saddam Hussein's).
As these comments suggest, it has been the United States' perceived softness in recent years, rather than its bullying behavior, that has encouraged the anti-Americans to act on their beliefs. After the United States failed to respond aggressively to many terrorist attacks against its citizens, stood by while Americans were seized as hostages in Iran and Lebanon, let Saddam Hussein remain in power while letting the shah fall, pressured its friends and courted its enemies, and allowed its prized Arab-Israeli peace process be destroyed, why should anyone have respected its interests or fear its wrath?
Astute Middle Eastern observers have made much of the United States' post-Vietnam loathing for foreign adventures. In the 1970s, when many Iranians worried that Washington would destroy their revolution if it went too far, Khomeini told them not to worry, saying America "cannot do a damn thing." And as recently as 1998, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor, insisted there was no need to negotiate with the United States since Tehran had shown that Washington was too weak to be feared or heeded.
Saddam Hussein has similarly tried to persuade Arabs and Muslims of U.S. weakness. He has interpreted U.S. efforts at conciliation as proof that Washington fears confronting him. By evincing no strong reaction to Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, threats against Israel, outspoken anti-Americanism, or ultimatum to Kuwait, U.S. policy helped precipitate a much bigger crisis in August 1990.
In a February 24, 1990, speech to an Arab summit, Saddam told Arabs that they had three options. They could give up, wait until Europe was stronger and play it off against America, or unite behind a strong leader who could defeat the United States. Americans, he insisted, feared military confrontations and losses. It had shown "signs of fatigue, frustration, and hesitation" in Vietnam and Iran and had quickly run away from Lebanon "when some marines were killed" by suicide bombers in 1983. Experience had shown, he concluded, that if Iraq acted boldly, the United States would do nothing.
These declarations were a way to make the Arab world forget all the unpleasant lessons of history and follow a new leader into another dangerous adventure. Saddam got the result he wanted: the Arab masses cheered, their leaders jumped on his bandwagon, and the United States stayed out of his way, at least for the moment. Of course, Saddam was wrong in thinking he could take over Kuwait and that America would stand by and do nothing. But he was right enough about the United States to still be in power today, many years after making that miscalculation.
Radical Islamists, including bin Laden, spoke in remarkably similar terms in the 1990s, arguing that direct strikes against U.S. interests or territory would be met by American cowardice and trigger Islamist revolution. The quick U.S. defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan may have silenced much of the sympathy for bin Laden in the months since. But anti-Americanism seems to be at an all-time high.
The final question seems a simple one, but is perhaps the most difficult to answer: What should Washington do in the face of this most difficult problem? Given the practical political benefits that anti-Americanism can provide in the Arab world, the United States will never persuade its adversaries and critics that they are simply mistaken in their hatred. Even if the United States were to pressure Israel, end sanctions on Iraq, or pull its troops out of the Persian Gulf, Arab journalists and politicians will not start praising America as a wonderful friend and noble example. Instead, further concessions will only encourage even more contempt for the United States and make the anti-American campaign more attractive.
What, then, should Washington do? U.S. policymakers should understand that various public relations efforts, apologies, acts of appeasement, or policy shifts will not by themselves do away with anti-Americanism. Only when the systems that manufacture and encourage anti-Americanism fail will popular opinion also change. In the interim, the most Washington can do is show the world that the United States is steadfast in support of its interests and allies. This approach should include both standing by Israel and maintaining good relations with moderate Arab states -- which should be urged to do more publicly to justify U.S. support. Steadfastness and bravery remain the best way to undermine the practical impact of Arab anti-Americanism.
Muslim versus non-Muslim states: Turkey vs. Greece, Bosnia vs. Yugoslavia, Kosovo vs. Yugoslavia, Pakistan vs. India, Afghans vs. Soviets, and Azerbaijan vs. Armenia. Arab versus non-Arab states: Iraq vs. Iran. Muslim states versus secular forces: Saudi Arabia and other monarchies vs. Egypt, Jordan and other regimes vs. Syria and Iraq, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia vs. Iraq.
Copyright 2002 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.