The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism

In the Middle East, Haters Gonna Hate

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.

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