The United States is the world’s leading exporter of culture regarding everything from t-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 and that their worldview, news, and spin come from a radical direction, whether it be 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.