Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism: In the Middle East, Haters Gonna Hate

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism: In the Middle East, Haters Gonna Hate

Article excerpt

Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? BY AMANEY JAMAL. Princeton University Press, 2012, 296 pp. $75.00 (paper, $27.95).

A decade ago, anti-Americanism seemed like an urgent problem. Overseas opinion surveys showed dramatic spikes in hostility toward the United States, especially in the Arab world-a sentiment expressed all too clearly by massive crowds burning American flags and the growing prominence of Islamist extremists and terrorist groups. Many Americans, not surprisingly, saw this development as a serious threat. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, when U.S. citizens were asked to rank the importance of Washington's goals, more placed a higher priority on restoring the country's standing in the world than on protecting jobs, combating terrorism, or preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

When Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as president in 2008, however, the perceived crisis of anti- Americanism faded away. Obama pledged to engage with foreign publics and repair the United States' image abroad, an effort that peaked with his June 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world. Early in Obama's first term, opinion surveys in the Arab world recorded a surge of more positive attitudes toward the United States, mostly in response to the popular new president. But the reprieve did not last long. Obama's relatively conventional approach to foreign policy, especially in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, proved a disappointment to Arab publics, and criticism quickly resurfaced.

In 2011, the Arab Spring sparked expectations that a shakeup in domestic politics would help the region move past its reflexive anti-Americanism and stop blaming others for its woes. Pundits marveled at the absence of burning American flags and anti-American chants among the masses demonstrating in Cairo's Tahrir Square; for once, it seemed, the anger was not about the United States. But like Obama's appeal in the Middle East, this hope also proved fleeting, as Islamist parties swept elections in Tunisia and Egypt, violent protests targeted U.S. embassies across the Middle East after an anti-Islamic video was posted on YouTube, and four American diplomats were murdered by jihadists in Libya.

It is now clear that even major changes, such as Bush's departure, Obama's support for some of the Arab revolts of 2011, the death of Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, have had surprisingly little effect on Arab attitudes toward the United States. Anti-Americanism might have ebbed momentarily, but it is once again flowing freely. Meanwhile, Islamism is on the rise, and jihadist subcultures are flourishing. And the liberal and secular factions that might have seemed like natural American allies are now voicing some of the loudest complaints: they are angry at the United States when its military intervenes in the region (in Libya) and when it does not (in Syria), and they are outraged when Washington supports democratic elections (in Egypt, where Islamists won) and when it does not (in Bahrain, for example).

The persistence of anti-Americanism in the Arab world is a major theme in Amaney Jamal's Of Empires and Citizens, a provocative work that challenges the terms of a very stale debate among three main camps: those who see Arab anti- Americanism as the product of a deep, unique civilizational hatred; those who see anti-Americanism as simple and predictable resentment of the world's sole superpower, common across the globe and not unique to Arab countries; and those who see it as a rational response to U.S. policies that Arabs believe have systematically harmed their interests.

Jamal most closely follows the third camp, but with a twist. In her telling, anti-Americanism has very little to do with cultural resentments or civilizational hatred and is more than just a natural response to a leading world power. And although she certainly believes that policies such as Washington's "war on terror" and its unwavering support for Israel play a role in shaping Arab attitudes, she argues that they are not the core factors. …

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