To Be Liked or to Be Feared: That Is the Question

"If you want to understand the world," my great professor of Arabic at Columbia told me, "you need only remember this:

  • "The British want to be respected;
  • The French want to be admired;
  • The Russians want to be feared;
  • And the Americans want to be liked."

It was one of many things -- Arab literature and Arabic composition and style (al-inshaa wa-al--usloob) -- given me by Professor Pierre  Cachia, a wise and worldly man who tells jokes in English, French and Arabic, all perfectly grammatical.

If I told my professor's joke to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, there is a chance he might smile or give me a quick and rueful "da, konyeshno" -- "yes, of course."

If I got to tell President Barack Obama my joke at a Democratic fundraiser or on the golf course, he might respond with a smidgen of recognition, because the joke nicely sums up Putin's world view and Obama's "flexible" approach to world affairs.

To be fair to Putin, Russia's desire to be feared did not start with Putin, and it is not just a Russian desire. Other states like being feared, too, and America's yen for affection did not commence with President Obama, though he embraces it more than any other American leader in history, especially when facing the Middle East.

Once in office, Obama rushed to greet the Islamic countries, reminding everyone he was Barack HUSSEIN Obama, the man whose middle name re-emerged after the election, the man who loved the sound of the Islamic call to prayer and who was proud to tell everyone that he was born to a Muslim father.

In a spate of trips, interviews and policy initiatives, Obama flirted with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, embraced Turkey's Islamist autocrat, courted Syria's dictator, and "engaged" Iran's maniacal ayatollahs. But somehow, it did not work.

To be fair to Obama, his courtship of the Islamic community was more than just about wanting to be liked. It was about the vision of another Columbia professor who influenced Obama: Edward Said, the dapper dabbler in anti-colonialism who fancied himself (like Obama) more of an expert on the Arab East than he really was.

Obama, who transferred to Columbia a few years after I completed my degrees, never studied with my professor, Pierre Cachia, and he does not know Arabic or much Islamic history, but he became friendly with Professor Said, an English professor and literary critic who pretended to know Arabic and Arab history.