Belmont Club

The Inexplicable Emotion

Glenn Greenwald tries to solve a mystery. Why does the Muslim world hate Obama? Greenwald gleefully rips into Andrew Sullivan’s prediction that Obama’s election would make America a hit in the Islamic world.

Obama’s most devoted supporters have long hailed his supposedly unique ability to improve America’s standing in that part of the world. In his first of what would be many paeans to Obama, Andrew Sullivan wrote back in 2007 that among Obama’s countless assets, “first and foremost [is] his face”, which would provide “the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan”. Sullivan specifically imagined a “young Pakistani Muslim” seeing Obama as “the new face of America”; instantly, proclaimed Sullivan, “America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm”. Obama would be “the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology” because it “proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can”. Sullivan made clear why this matters so much: “such a re-branding is not trivial – it’s central to an effective war strategy.”

None of that has happened. In fact, the opposite has taken place: although it seemed impossible to achieve, Obama has presided over an America that, in many respects, is now even more unpopular in the Muslim world than it was under George Bush and Dick Cheney.

He cites a poll finding that 92% of Pakistanis (Sullivan’s example) “disapprove of US leadership”.  So what went wrong? Greenwald says this reversal of fortune can be easily explained. “America is a rogue nation”, Greenwald concludes and the hatred for Obama is the natural result his policy of  launching drone attacks in so many countries.

By contrast American Muslims just love Obama. A Gallup poll found that “Seventy-two percent of U.S. Muslims approved of the job President Barack Obama was doing as president during the first six months of 2014, higher than any other U.S. religious group Gallup tracks.

Mormons were least approving, at 18%. In general, majorities of those in non-Christian religions — including those who do not affiliate with any religion — approved of Obama, while less than a majority of those in the three major Christian religious groups did.

What accounts for the president’s paradoxical popularity among American Muslims and the opposite reaction in the Muslim world? Is Greenwald’s explanation correct? There are two problems with Greenwald’s explanation. One is the problem of scale, the other is history. The problem of scale is the easiest to understand. Critics allege that Obama has killed 2,400 persons, including civilians, during his term of office.

But Bill Clinton allegedly killed 500,000 Iraqi children from the sanctions he imposed on Saddam. The Lancet argued that George W. Bush caused “654,965 excess deaths” by invading Iraq. The Huffington Post claims that ISIS killed 1,992 Iraqis in June alone. The UN estimates that 191,000 people have died in the Syrian Civil War.

Even if one discounts the hokey Lancet and Clinton-era sanction numbers, it is undeniable that Obama has directly killed only a small number of people by comparison to the military actions of predecessors and other regional actors.

But the real objection to Greenwald’s idea lies in history. While more force may have been used in the past, former American presidents used it, for the most part,  to either protect the Muslim world both from their regional enemies or from itself.

For years America sided with Pakistan against India. It saved the Muslims in the Balkans. But it was America’s ability to protect the Muslim world from itself that was its most valued service. It defended the Gulf States from Saddam. It probably saved the Shi’ites in Iraq from genocide. Until recently many Syrians were hoping it could stop the civil war. History suggests that the Muslim world does not object to force per se, as long as that power is used to provide stability in a region unable to provide it for itself.

The problem isn’t, as Greenwald suggests, that “America is a rogue nation” but that America has stopped playing the role of hegemon.  Unable to order things for themselves,  for a variety of reasons, the Muslim world  relied first on the British and then the Americans to order it for them.

When Obama stopped being the hegemon,  he created a power vacuum which allowed the worst tendencies of the region to metastize; and the resulting chaos  created a huge number of deaths.  It is this indirect death toll — the result of the failure policy — and not the explosions of Hellfire missiles, that has caused the real hurt.

The drone deaths, however unjustified they may be, are small change by comparison to the doleful roll of Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the massive refugee flows in Turkey and Jordan.   Obama’s failures have caused the substantive agony and not the comparatively small number of drone deaths or the phony baloney damage imputed by the Lancet to Bush.

Perhaps the real reason that the Muslim world misgives Obama is they believe he is a Muslim, and therefore not to be trusted. Sullivan imagines  that a “young Pakistani Muslim” would trust someone like himself, when in fact he might more readily trust someone not like himself. For someone like himself would take sides in one of the many factional disputes that divide his society. Only someone who can stand above the fray has any hope of being fair.  America was a great brand name, associated with the longest period of peace in modern history. To exchange Uncle Sam for the persona of Prince Ali was poor salesmanship.

So much better than Uncle Sam

So much better than Uncle Sam

The great majority of people in the world actually liked and admired Uncle Sam. Sullivan and Greenwald probably did not.  So how’s that rebranding working out? Who can forget the scene in Lawrence of Arabia the hero realizes that his real influence lies in being able to stand outside of the tribal cycle of violence.  In one scene a tribesman murders a member of a rival tribe.  If the rival tribe retaliates, the entire expedition will dissolve into  conflict.  So Lawrence must settle the dispute without precipitating a bloodbath.

T.E. Lawrence: The Law says the man must die… If he dies, would that content the Howitat?

Auda abu Tayi: Yes.

T.E. Lawrence: Sherif Ali. If none of lord Auda’s men harms any of yours, will that content the Harith?

Sherif Ali: Yes.

T.E. Lawrence: Then I will execute the Law. I have no tribe and no one is offended.

Obama’s popularity with Muslims in America can easily be explained by the fact that his mistakes haven’t affected them yet. Once American Sunni mosques are bombed by Shi’ites or vice versa, expect Obama’s popularity to drop. For once things come down to Muslim vs Muslim, as is happening elsewhere, it is the non-Muslim who they might rather have in charge.

When Obama stopped being an outsider and became one of the tribesmen then he became part of the problem, not the unifying, attractive figure Andrew Sullivan imagined. But returning to the famous movie, the moral is that Lawrence’s credibility is ultimately based on his ability to deliver. After he settled the dispute between the tribes, he took Aquaba.  By contrast Obama is taking vacations. The yardstick by which a leader is ultimately judged is the kind of governance he provides. Love and loyalty is not won by speeches, but by results.

Most people want safety and peace. Obama gave the American public “rebranding” instead of leadership and  Greenwald would have him give the Muslim world more chaos instead of a way to deal with their demons. Who really thinks that can endear him to anyone?  It’s not hard to explain why the Muslim world dislikes Obama.  Nobody likes a loser.

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