"America's blankness"

A professor explains why so many people around the world hate us and what a post-Bush foreign policy might look like.

Published June 17, 2004 3:06PM (EDT)

Anti-Americanism has a long and complex history. But most observers agree that the Bush administration's bellicose and unilateralist foreign policy has greatly enflamed smoldering animosities and even managed to turn the United States into a universal hate object. My aim here is to think coolly about this development, and to ask, above all, if it matters. I want to examine, in particular, what growing hostility to the U.S. will mean for democracy promotion in the Middle East, an important plank, until recently, of Bush's foreign policy, and one that resonates strongly with a tradition of U.S. messianism abroad.

We should not assume, without looking into it, that anti-Americanism will necessarily affect our national interests. Indeed, hatred of the U.S. should concern our national-security community only if it galvanizes individuals and groups with the capacity to harm us, either positively, by inflicting grave injuries, or negatively, by withholding the cooperation on which we depend to solve our most urgent problems. The latter method of inflicting damage merits special emphasis. WMD proliferation and offshore plotting by terrorist cells may or may not require active sponsorship by rogue states. But they can both benefit decisively from slovenly oversight by disorganized, distracted and incompetent states. Public officials around the world can inflict the most serious imaginable damage on the U.S. by simply being negligent. And negligence, it so happens, comes effortlessly to most human beings.

Neither in Europe nor in the Middle East is anti-Americanism simply a product of the Iraq war. Anyone in touch with foreign colleagues who have recently visited the U.S. has certainly been regaled with stories of the many petty humiliations associated with our newly tightened and irrationally vexing visa regime. But the Iraq war has certainly had a massive impact, and not only on U.S. credibility abroad. What we face here is not merely skepticism but also burning rage, a passionate antipathy that, although far from uniform, does seem ubiquitous. Even now, however, America's critics continue to distinguish between the U.S. administration, which they fear and despise, and the American people, with whom they feel sympathy.

But the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison may have finally changed that. If the American electorate, knowing what it knows and, above all, having seen what it has seen, proceeds to reelect George W. Bush in November, the moderating distinction between the American administration and the American people will be eroded or perhaps erased -- with what violent consequences no one can predict.

Before discussing the concrete repercussions of anti-Americanism in Europe and the Middle East, I want to pause briefly to say a word about a famous phrase of Machiavelli's, frequently cited by neoconservatives in the run-up to the Iraq war, that "it is better to be feared than loved." This quotation is interesting mostly for what it omits. For Machiavelli quickly went on to add: "It is worst of all to be hated." People who fear us, for the most part, will dare not harm us. But fear, according to Machiavelli, works too slowly on the human spirit to obstruct the effects of the searing hatred that drives men immediately and impulsively to furious action. The administration is wrong, therefore, to believe that it can easily scare people into abandoning their plots to injure Americans. U.S. shows of force invariably provoke rage; and this rage, in turn, often overrides the trepidation that our military superiority instills.

Machiavelli might well have added that "worst of all is to be hated without being feared" -- the unenviable position into which the U.S. has recklessly cast itself, with what consequences, I believe, no one can tell. Reduced fear of the U.S., in fact, may be one of the most paradoxical outcomes of the war in Iraq. By exposing, in such an eye-catching fashion, the limits of U.S. military power, the administration has unintentionally reduced anxiety in Syria and Iran. What countries will now fear an American invasion? Who will henceforth believe our bluffs?

I do not know what psychological impact the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from South Korea has on Pyongyang, but front-page displays of our scrambling for replacements and our military overstretch cannot possibly improve America's ability to deliver credible threats. As fear of the U.S. wanes, moreover, America's most sinister enemies will feel more and more emboldened.

But what are the practical consequences of anti-Americanism in Europe and the Middle East? In Europe, needless to say, America's military adventurism will not discredit the idea of democracy itself, though it has already damaged the reputation of America's democratic institutions, especially our system of checks and balances. The institutions designed to facilitate political self-correction seem to have completely broken down. This includes, first of all, our ordinary constitutional procedures for legislative and judicial oversight of executive action. But it also includes the poor performance of the celebrated American media. Even the New York Times has now confessed to having uncritically passed on disinformation provided by Iraqi exiles with strong reasons for exaggerating the real threat.

Those worried by the unraveling of the Atlantic alliance have been especially shocked by the clashing coverage of the Iraq war in the U.S. and European media. American and European television viewers have seen two different wars, making rational transatlantic discussion of the subject almost impossible. Unlike Americans, moreover, Europeans are acutely aware of the discrepancy in news coverage. They attribute it to what they see as America's post-9/11 autism, a screening out of information that clashes with a set of fixed ideas.

From 9/11 Americans should have learned the importance, for U.S. national security, of accurate, deep and up-to-date knowledge of political instability around the world. Political violence, in any possible country, is never farther than a plane ride away from major U.S. urban centers. But instead of creating a national appetite for knowledge about the world, 9/11 had the opposite effect. It seems to have traumatized Americans, making them even less interested than before in non-American goings-on and points of view. Our capacity to see ourselves through the eyes of others was never great. But after 9/11, Americans seem to have withdrawn even further into themselves.

One symptom of America's growing disconnect from the world, and especially from its former Cold War allies, is the administration's reliance on language that is unintelligible to Europeans. An example is the claim, often advanced by President Bush, that we are currently engaged in a world war between "democracy and terrorism." This is a confusing way to speak because the same terrorist network that attacked the U.S. has also attacked Saudi Arabia, a tribal monarchy that bears no resemblance to a democracy.

But the unintelligibility of Bush's formulation runs much deeper. Roughly speaking, "democracy" is a system that allows those who are directly affected by decisions to exert some influence on the decision makers, ideally by periodically reelecting them or ousting them from office. This simple definition makes clear why Europeans and others greet Bush's endless claims to be "spreading democracy" with such disbelief. Throughout the world, people who were never consulted, even casually, are profoundly affected every day by decisions made in Washington. America's blankness about the downstream effects on other countries of its actions is without question one of the principal sources of anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere.

Formulated differently, anti-Americanism is to some extent the expression of thwarted democratic aspirations. This also explains, incidentally, why many Europeans hostile to the U.S. seem to place such unrealistically high hopes on the United Nations and other multilateral bodies. It is obviously impossible to run the world through an organization as dysfunctional as the U.N. But even sophisticated non-Americans who understand the real limits of multilateralism and international law continue to look hopefully to the U.N. They do so, against the odds, because the U.N. represents one of the few possibilities left on the horizon to pressure the U.S. into taking into account non-American interests and points of view.

Arguably, terrorism itself is, in part, a sick, perverted and distorted echo of the desire of powerless groups to get the attention of the sole remaining superpower. That is yet another reason why Bush's stylized "war between democracy and terrorism" seems so misleading to most non-Americans. Bush likes the democracy vs. terrorism contrast, of course, because it brings "moral clarity," that is to say, it paints one side as purely good and the other side as purely evil. The rest of the world cannot decide if this way of speaking is crude propaganda or crude propaganda mixed with self-delusion.

What are the practical effects of the new wave of anti-Americanism? There are some reasons to doubt its importance. For one thing, European publics are just as alienated from Brussels as from Washington, and for much the same reason, namely a "democratic deficit" or lack of consultation. The European Union bureaucracy is not especially transparent or accountable. As a result, there is no political center to which Europeans hostile to America can rally. And there is no positive political agenda to which Europe-wide anti-Americanism can contribute.

In the end, after receiving a few concessions, the major European powers will no doubt agree to help the U.S. win what U.N. resolutions it needs concerning Iraq. They may also contribute more cash and troops to the international effort in Afghanistan. But, aside from the U.K., they will give the U.S. none of the substantial help it needs in Iraq. They would presumably be willing to contribute to a U.N. and NATO operation, so long as the U.S. reduced its visibility and relinquished command and control. But short of such a dramatic volte-face by Bush, the Europeans are not about to ride to the rescue.

So here we can register a genuine and serious injury to U.S. national security that is directly traceable to popular anti-Americanism. It is largely a self-inflicted wound, the result of the Bush administration's contemptuous treatment of America's European allies. The damage will become even more galling if it turns out, during the next months, that very few non-European countries are willing to maintain their contingents or send more soldiers to Iraq even if the U.S. pays the freight.

Events may yet intervene and undo some of the damage that the Bush administration has cavalierly inflicted on the Atlantic alliance. Everything would change dramatically, for example, if there were more Madrid-style terrorist attacks in Europe. The anti-American feelings now roiling many Europeans could, under the shock of a mass-casualty strike in France or Italy, easily yield to anti-Muslim rage, fed by popular resentment toward Muslim immigrants and guest workers. Let us all hope and pray that nothing of the sort transpires. But if it does, anti-Americanism may well be overshadowed by a more virulent and consequential strain of Western xenophobia.

Terrorism is by nature unpredictable. But European-American relations will also be transformed to some extent by a perfectly predictable event, the American presidential election. So I should mention the almost messianic hopes that America's traditional friends in Europe are now investing in John Kerry. This remarkable faith suggests, first of all, that residual pro-American feelings exist just beneath the surface in Europe, even though no one can imagine a repair in U.S.-European relations if Bush stays in office, this time released from the first-termer's need to mollify his electorate. The hopes that political elites in Europe place in Kerry are easy to explain psychologically. Politically serious Europeans recognize that there are no effective solutions to many of the world's greatest problems without American support and leadership.

Some European commentators have said that there are few doctrinal differences, in foreign policy, between Kerry and Bush. But they quickly add that removing Bush from office in November will still make a decisive difference to international security, including the global struggle against terrorism. The need to correct grievous errors alone speaks for the importance of putting a new foreign policy team into the White House, a group that has no incentive to conceal embarrassing blunders or to continue failed policies.

But other European commentators go further, expecting Kerry to rebuild the Atlantic alliance on a wholly new basis. Bush acceded to the presidency, they say, with the conviction that the collapse of the USSR combined with America's military superiority made the Atlantic alliance essentially otiose. Europeans did not see Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat. But America didn't care because it could invade Iraq with or without the help of its former allies.

Kerry, according to his European admirers, should do everything in his power to avoid this slide into gratuitous unilateralism. His first step, they say, should be to soberly examine the principal post-Cold War threats to U.S. national security -- WMD proliferation and non-state terrorist networks plotting mass-casualty attacks on U.S. cities. The national security establishments of our primary European allies say that these are the main threats to European security, too. The perception of shared threats, in fact, provides the obvious starting point for a post-Bush foreign policy. Kerry will easily grasp this point.

Both menaced by terrorism and proliferation, Europeans and Americans can greatly benefit by security cooperation. Moreover, Europe has a great deal to offer to the U.S. Europe is a military pygmy and can therefore provide little help in invading countries such as Iraq. But it is not a security pygmy -- not if we take seriously the way security has been redefined since 9/11. National security has now become largely a matter of effective counterterrorism, for which military force is of only limited value. When it comes to counterterrorism, the Europeans are quite well endowed. For historical and geographical reasons, Europe's clandestine security agencies have even greater capacities than the CIA and the FBI for infiltrating and monitoring anti-American terrorist groups. The most robust and flourishing form of multilateralism today, in fact, may be international police cooperation. The Atlantic alliance could fairly rapidly be renewed and deepened on the basis of a shared understanding of common threats and the capacity for mutual assistance -- a task that America's friends in Europe expect that a President Kerry would energetically take up.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East, of course, goes deeper and is less likely to die down than anti-Americanism in Europe. The minority of Arabs and Muslims who implacably loathe the U.S. is growing more influential by the day. Those who have traditionally felt friendly or neutral to the U.S. are siding more and more against us. Their hostility, moreover, is becoming less a matter of policy and more a matter of identity. Increasingly, it is impossible to make any claim to an Arab consciousness without railing against the U.S. This is a very dangerous development, since it means that anti-American attitudes are putting more Middle Easterners beyond the reach of diplomacy. Unknown numbers of young men, in particular, are becoming irreconcilable even by dramatic reversals of policy.

It is a mistake to belittle such fury by reciting the tag line, "Yankee go home and take me with you," a reflection of the ambiguity of Middle Eastern attitudes toward the U.S. Economic opportunity will always draw people away from their homes, but it will not necessarily render harmless the seething political anger of their children. So here we have another answer to the question, What concrete dangers does anti-American rage in the Middle East pose to U.S. national security? Anti-American rage is dangerous, as virtually every commentator acknowledges, because it increases the recruitment pool available to al-Qaida and like-minded conspiratorial terrorist bands.

Besides facilitating terrorist recruitment, the Iraq war is also likely to dampen the prospects for democratic reform in the region. Before examining the political repercussions of the Iraq war within Middle Eastern states, however, it is necessary to focus on three probable developments on the U.S. side.

First, in the wake of the Iraq debacle, Washington is likely to succumb, at least temporarily, to democracy-promotion fatigue. The sting of failure will presumably dampen for a time serious interest in supporting democratic reforms in the region. Grandiose talk will continue, of course. But less money will be spent, and less experienced personnel will be assigned to a project that now appears much less realistic than before.

Second, America's aggressive counterterrorism efforts have already interfered significantly with its attempts at democracy promotion. To battle terrorism, the U.S. has been lending support to the secretive and coercive apparatuses of states that are, at best, incompletely democratic. This trend will continue and, under these conditions, democratization efforts will no doubt be funded quite feebly and will be cosmetic at best.

Third, it seems to be dawning on the administration that democratization elsewhere in the world might not have the same happily pro-American consequences as democratization had in Eastern Europe. Polish democracy is pro-American because the majority of Poles have strong historical reasons for identifying with America. The same cannot be said for a majority of Iraqis. As a result, Iraqi democracy, even if we had been able to create it, probably would have been virulently anti-American and most certainly anti-Israeli. As the example of Turkey reveals, democratically elected Muslim regimes can persuasively invoke and even rally public opinion when saying "no" to urgent American pleas for cooperation. Appreciation for this dynamic will also presumably moderate Washington's appetite for democracy promotion in the Middle East.

Given a decreasing commitment to democracy promotion, then, how will the Iraq war and anti-Americanism in general affect democratic reform efforts in the region? The authoritarian Arab regimes, it seems, were genuinely nervous after 9/11. Washington was furious at the relaxed attitude shown toward anti-American rhetoric and even terrorist plotting by so-called friendly autocrats. Today, American fury may still smolder, but the anxiety of Arab autocrats has mostly abated. Authoritarian rulers in the region are more willing than before to repress domestic opposition, and thus to thwart democratic reform, in the name of counterterrorism. Correspondingly, democratic reformers feel less confident; they are less certain than before that the U.S. will follow through on its verbal commitments, that it will, in a crunch, deliver help to reformers who are brave enough to stick their necks out. But, after the Iraq debacle, they also worry about associating too closely with the U.S. -- and may even refuse modest U.S. help however desperately they need it.

The situation would be somewhat less desperate if the Europeans could step in and replace the Americans as the principal democracy promoters in the region. But unfortunately, the Europeans find this difficult to do, principally because Bush's embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has thoroughly tainted any project in the Middle East associated with the U.S. administration. The Europeans are very unlikely at this point to step in and fill the breach, even though stalled reform in the Middle East may have very negative consequences for them, first of all.

A worst-case outcome would be a quisling regime clinging to shreds of "sovereign" power after the departure of U.S. troops, first weakened by successive ministerial assassinations and then fragmenting along ethnic or sectarian lines, and eventually collapsing. Following that could be large-scale communal violence, including another murderous onslaught on the Kurds, who are viewed by Iraqi Arabs, both Shiite and Sunni, as collaborators with the American occupation. We might even live to see a dramatic last-minute evacuation by helicopter of a besieged U.S. Embassy.

But let's leave such nightmare scenarios aside. What is the very best outcome that we can hope for in Iraq? With extraordinary luck, Iraq could become, in a few years, something like Bosnia without the high representative of the E.U. It would have a weak central government because, given the fragmentation of the society, no all-Iraqi government can be simultaneously representative and coherent. Periodic elections would serve only to reinforce the independence of the Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions, and the government would constantly be in delicate negotiations with local and tribal leaders. Such a pseudo-state would be considered successful if it could protect its cabinet members from assassination, if most foreign fighters were evicted (breaking the lethal marriage of convenience between transnational terrorists and nationalist insurgents) and if neighboring powers were not driven to dispatch military forces into the country. But it would be at best a corrupt, criminalized and disorganized polity, festering, unsafe and characterized by violent weakness.

How would such an outcome affect the reputation of American-sponsored democratization in the region? For a clue we can look to Russia. In the early 1990s, Russians associated the word "reform" with hope for social improvement. Today, the word has been completely discredited by its association with unjustifiable inequalities and the corrupt seizure of public property by well-placed insiders wholly unconcerned with the well-being of ordinary citizens. Something analogous has happened to the word "democracy," which has become associated with Russia's humiliating collapse from superpower to basket case. Will the Iraq debacle contaminate the concept of democracy for Middle Easterners in a similar way?

Democracy will remain an attractive ideal around the world, including the Middle East, so long as life in established democracies remains well ordered, prosperous, safe and free from abuse. Nevertheless, the public humiliations of Iraqis -- committed in the name of "democracy" -- may well leave a lasting taint on the idea. Some of those in the region, contemplating the miserable breakdown of Iraqi society, may well conclude that authoritarianism is more compatible with Arab dignity than an aborted attempt to democratize a society that does not seem especially ready for democracy.

By Stephen Holmes

Stephen Holmes is a professor at the New York University School of Law and author of several books, most recently "The Cost of Rights" (with Cass Sunstein).

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