As bad as the Iraq detainee scandal is — and it is very bad — this is not the time for Americans to blame all our failings in the Mideast on ourselves.
There is an unfortunate tendency to conclude that the United States is hated in the Mideast because of our own misdeeds. That just isn’t the case, and the situation just isn’t that simple.
Certainly, episodes such as Abu Ghraib contribute to negative feelings about America. So does the fact that the United States is an invading power. No matter how benevolent the occupation — and obviously it hasn’t been that benevolent — the occupier is still going to be resented no matter how pure the nation believes its motives to be.
But the answer to the question of “why do they hate us” has a lot more to do with traditional forms of prejudice and discrimination. The Muslim world, unable to cope with modernity and often ruled by corrupt despots, has found a convenient scapegoat for all its fears and failures: the United States of America, the most powerful nation in the world. In the 19th century, Great Britain, then the dominant world power, was placed in that role. Now it’s our turn.
“Arab and Muslim hatred of the United States is not just, or even mainly, a response to actual U.S. policies — policies that, if anything, have been remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim over the years,” wrote Mideast expert Barry Rubin in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs of 2002. “Rather such animus is largely the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups within Arab society, groups that use anti-Americanism as a foil to distract public attention from other, far more serious problems within those societies.”
It’s an article worth coming back to in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal — not to exonerate those who have done terrible, wrong things, but to place in perspective why the United States is in Iraq, what has gone wrong, and who is to blame.
Scapegoating is not a new phenomenon, of course. It is what the Nazis did to the Jews and Southern whites did to blacks. That it is the less powerful doing it to the more powerful in this case does not negate or excuse the action.
Rubin documents the positive things the United States has done for the Arab and Muslim world, including acting to protect the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars, a Muslim group. Washington also went to war to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and has been steadfast in its support of Saudi Arabia, even when the Saudis were nationalizing the oil companies there.
Was there a large dose of American self-interest involved in these actions? Of course. That is the way nations act, that is the way of the world. But, then again, the 1992 U.S. intervention in the Somalia civil war had much more to do with protecting a starving Muslim population than any geopolitical calculation.
What can we do about this scapegoating of the United States? Some of it comes with the territory of being the world’s only superpower. And being “liked” shouldn’t necessarily be the end-all of our foreign policy. Being respected is more important. That’s why I doubt that President Bush’s apology about the Abu Ghraib situation will do anything to ameliorate anti-U.S. feelings.
In the end, what will work will be whether Arab states can develop their own open, free and market-oriented societies. In that sense, Bush is right to make democracy a goal for the Mideast. But if there is one thing we can see from our year in Iraq it is that you cannot impose democracy from the top down; you cannot want it more than the people and their leaders.
In the meantime, we should deal with our own shortcomings, but understand that we are not the core of the problem.
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