The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism

In the Middle East, Haters Gonna Hate

(Amr Nabil / AP Photo)

Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? BY AMANEY JAMAL. Princeton University Press, 2012, 296 pp. $75.00 (paper, $27.95).

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.

It is now clear that even major changes, such as Bush's departure, Obama's support for some of the Arab revolts of 2011, the death of Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, have had surprisingly little effect on Arab attitudes toward the United States. Anti-Americanism might have ebbed momentarily, but it is once again flowing freely. Meanwhile, Islamism is on the rise, and jihadist subcultures are flourishing. And the liberal and secular factions that might have seemed like natural American allies are now voicing some of the loudest complaints: they are angry at the United States when its military intervenes in the region (in Libya) and when it does not (in Syria), and they are outraged when Washington supports democratic elections (in Egypt, where Islamists won) and when it does not (in Bahrain, for example).

The persistence of anti-Americanism in the Arab world is a major theme in Amaney Jamal's Of Empires and Citizens, a provocative work that challenges the terms of a very stale debate among three main camps: those who see Arab anti-Americanism as the product of a deep, unique civilizational hatred; those who see anti-Americanism as simple and predictable resentment of the world's sole superpower, common across the globe and not unique to Arab countries; and those who see it as a rational response to U.S. policies that Arabs believe have systematically harmed their interests.

Jamal most closely follows the third camp, but with a twist. In her telling, anti-Americanism has very little to do with cultural resentments or civilizational hatred and is more than just a natural response to a leading world power. And although she certainly believes that policies such as Washington's "war on terror" and its unwavering support for Israel play a role in shaping Arab attitudes, she argues that they are not the core factors. Instead, Arab anti-Americanism reflects a deeper rejection of undemocratic political systems in Arab countries, which for decades have been underwritten and supported by the United States. She argues that the United States has been the main obstacle to the emergence of democracy in the Middle East, because it has insisted on "pro-American democracy or no democracy at all." It is that support for authoritarian rule, more than other frequently criticized U.S. policies, which she sees as being at the heart of Arab anti-Americanism.

If Jamal is right, then much of the received wisdom of the last decade needs to be reconsidered. Changing U.S. policies, even on high-priority issues such as Israel, would not have much effect on anti-Americanism, and efforts to promote American values in the region by waging a "war of ideas" against radical Islam would be at best irrelevant and at worst counterproductive. In Jamal's view, what the United States needs to do is precisely what she believes it cannot do: meaningfully promote Arab democracy.

Jamal's thesis is now being put to the test. The Obama administration has demonstrated that Washington is willing to accommodate change, and in the years to come, the new democratic politics of the Arab world will continue to erode the old authoritarian order that so many associate with the United States. This process, rather than a U.S.-led war against extremist ideas or changes to core U.S. national security interests, might actually turn out to represent a first step in ending the Arab world's long history of anti-Americanism.

PITY THE FELOUL

Jamal's book centers on a close examination of popular attitudes toward the United States in Jordan and Kuwait, two small Arab states that have long been closely aligned with Washington, and includes shorter observations about opinions in several other Arab countries. Like most Arab regimes, the Jordanian and Kuwaiti governments, she argues, are essentially clients of the United States and are thus only nominally independent sovereigns. Washington plays an outsized role in shaping the political systems of such countries, especially through its support for the ruling regimes: sharing intelligence and advanced military technology and, in the case of the Gulf states, maintaining major U.S. military bases on their territory. For some Arab states, an alliance with the United States opens the door to support from international financial institutions and other international organizations and makes it easier to reach trade agreements and carrying out arms deals. In short, all political and security roads still go through Washington. 

But some segments of Arab societies benefit more than others from these relationships with Washington. Educated, English-speaking, urban elites gain more than the less well off in the hinterlands or the exurbs. Those with access to cultural or financial capital profit enormously from the neoliberal economic reforms encouraged by the United States, while less-skilled laborers and agricultural workers get left behind. So although Washington's embrace is a blessing for many Arab regimes, it does not benefit all of their constituents equally.

This simple observation leads Jamal to the more complex argument that democratization stands to disrupt the patterns of patronage and access associated with U.S.-Arab alliances. Citizens of Arab states who have benefited (or who hope and expect to benefit) from greater global economic integration prefer the pro-American status quo and fear that democratization will disrupt their countries' relationships with Washington -- if not ending them, then at least changing them in ways that might allow others to grab a bigger piece of the pie. This helps explain the pro-American views of groups one might assume to be hostile to the United States. For example, Jamal reports that economically successful Jordanians of Palestinian origin are more pro-American than less well-off ones, suggesting that access to the economic benefits of the existing regime can trump even the potent resentments generated by decades of dispossession.

If Jamal is correct, and individual self-interest plays a significant role in shaping Arab attitudes toward the United States, it should also influence the prospects for democracy in the region. If the social classes that benefit from the perks the United States doles out to friendly Arab governments fear that Washington's largess might dry up in the wake of democratization, then they will oppose democratization. But if they believe that democracy will not threaten the alliances with the United States, then they will not necessarily stand in the way of change.

The Arab revolts of 2011 posed a test of this idea. Jamal's description of U.S. policy as "pro-American democracy or no democracy at all" might have been accurate for most of the last few decades. But the U.S. response to the revolutions calls her view into question. So far, the Obama administration has tolerated and supported (if not embraced) the newly elected Islamist parties now in power in Egypt and Tunisia. Not surprisingly, former regime supporters -- known in Egypt as feloul, or "remnants" -- who used to enjoy a monopoly on relations with the West, now feel betrayed. Yet Obama's position has also infuriated anti-Islamist, pro-democracy liberals, who have come to see U.S. support for the democratic process as equivalent to support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them expected that Washington would simply take their side, even after they proved to be weak at the ballot box. This has produced a new variety of anti-Americanism: in Egypt, liberals now accuse the United States of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to usher in a new kind of authoritarian rule there, all in the name of stability.

This seems to confirm the idea, put forward most notably by the political scientists Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane, that persistent anti-Americanism often results from "cognitive bias" -- another way of saying that people frequently see what they want to see, regardless of new information that contradicts their beliefs. After decades of castigating the United States for failing to live up to its democratic ideals by supporting authoritarian rulers, liberals in Egypt now seem incapable of accepting that Washington has changed course. In their eyes, Obama's acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral victories cannot be evidence of a new pro-democracy U.S. policy: instead, it is simply novel evidence of the same old hypocrisy and duplicity that Egyptian liberals have come to expect from the Americans.

INTERESTS TRUMP IDEALS

Of course, since the beginning of the Arab revolts, the United States has provided ammunition to such liberal critics, mainly through its inconsistency. The Obama administration has not been able to adequately explain, for example, why it supports popular demands for democracy in Egypt but not in Bahrain or the Palestinian territories. Divining the reasons for this inconsistency is important, because understanding it will make it easier to predict how the United States might respond to future political shifts in the Arab world. As far as Jamal is concerned, however, the Arab revolts have revealed very little about Washington's posture toward the Middle East. By her lights, entrenched U.S. interests are still the primary obstacle to democratization, and hostile Arab liberals are right to dismiss the sincerity of Washington's new support for democratic change. The United States, she argues, has systematically worked to stifle any push for real democracy, and the last two years have been no different. The backlash against its role in the region, which has in turn distorted opposition politics by channeling everything through a narrow lens of anti-Americanism, should therefore come as no surprise.

But Jamal overstates this claim -- and for that reason, her book is ultimately an inadequate guide to the complex relationship between anti-Americanism and democratic change in the shifting Arab world. Jamal fails to grapple with the complexities of American thinking about Arab democracy, what Washington has actually done in response to the uprisings, and the limitations on its ability to shape outcomes. She likely overstates the centrality of anti-Americanism to Arab identity and political orientations, particularly at a time when the United States has sought a lower profile in the domestic affairs of Arab states and has moved to reduce its regional footprint.

Jamal's case might have been strengthened by addressing the issue of cognitive bias. After all, Arabs' misplaced belief in Washington's power to shape their lives is actually much more interesting than the prosaic truth. Part of that truth is that the United States has traditionally preferred stable, nondemocratic partners in the Arab world and that it has often been unenthusiastic about genuine democratization there. But the survival of Arab authoritarianism has also relied on the fact that many Arab leaders have enjoyed access to vast oil revenues or regional alliances that have allowed them to build sturdy patronage systems and massive national security institutions. They have often excelled at patronage politics and strategies of divide and rule. Jamal too easily moves past such factors and gives the United States far too much credit. U.S. support might not have hurt, but these regimes did a lot on their own to cement their survival.

Jamal also misinterprets the nature of Washington's traditional lack of support for pro-democracy opposition movements in the Arab world. It is true that the United States has never been enthusiastic about sudden democratic change in the region. Washington has benefited enormously from its alliances with friendly dictators willing to protect its interests. But Jamal misses the fact that for the past two decades, most American policymakers and analysts have argued that in the long run, such authoritarianism was doomed to fail and that more democracy in the Arab world would ultimately favor U.S. interests. For that reason, ever since the Clinton administration, the United States has generally pushed for gradual democratic reforms.

Such support for gradual reform can be seen in long-standing U.S.-funded initiatives to develop civil society in Arab countries and to encourage political reform, such as the U.S.–Middle East Partnership Initiative. Crucially, the goal of this approach has been not to change the regimes but rather to stabilize them by increasing the legitimacy of their rule. The United States pushed Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to reform because Washington feared that without some liberalization of their countries' political systems, their regimes would become brittle and vulnerable to collapse -- and that whoever replaced them would be far more hostile to U.S. interests.

Jamal overlooks this nuance and instead injects a note of moral judgment into her argument. U.S. policy, she complains, has "placed the interests of the United States above and beyond the daily welfare of Arab citizens." Well, yes. In decrying U.S. support for autocracy, Jamal seems to forget that the United States' main concern is its own national interest.

HOW MUCH DO THE ISLAMISTS MATTER?

Given her insistence that U.S. policies are primarily to blame for the persistence of anti-Americanism, Jamal focuses to a surprising extent on the role of Islamist parties in determining its political salience. She argues that the importance of anti-Americanism in any particular Arab country depends to a significant degree on the nature of the local Islamist party. Thus, in her view, anti-Americanism is central to Jordanian politics because Jordan's Islamic Action Front is hostile to the United States (owing to the fact that its constituents do not benefit from the U.S.-Jordanian alliance and because of the local importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). By contrast, since Kuwait's Islamists are more friendly to Washington (because their constituents do for the most part benefit from the U.S.-Kuwaiti alliance), so are Kuwaitis in general.

But Jamal simply asserts that Islamists are the key without proving it. This likely ascribes to those movements more influence than they deserve. Indeed, in countries such as Egypt and Jordan, as in the wider Arab world, parties and people across the ideological spectrum hold negative views of the United States. This fits Jamal's primary point -- that anti-Americanism is primarily a matter of domestic political conflict -- but undermines her position that the attitudes of Islamist parties are what count the most.

The Arab Spring has challenged both legs of Jamal's argument about the vital role of Islamist parties. First, there are clearly other important and effective opposition movements. And second, Islamists, for all their cultural and political antipathy to the United States, are now becoming the regime incumbents who benefit from American support. They no longer represent the vanguard of anti-Americanism: that role has fallen, ironically, to leftist and liberal opposition movements who might identify in the abstract with American values but remain marginalized in a U.S.-backed status quo -- just as they were under the old authoritarian regimes. Should this lead to an enduring shift toward pro-American views among Islamists despite their profound ideological and political differences with the United States, it would offer powerful evidence in support of Jamal's thesis. But that, to put it mildly, remains to be seen.

DON'T LOOK BACK

Jamal's study focuses on Jordan and Kuwait and offers a rich and fascinating portrait of attitudes in those two societies. But these two states represent a thin and unrepresentative base on which to build a sweeping theory of Arab anti-Americanism. They are both small, highly dependent U.S. allies, after all, and their experiences probably do not apply to stronger or less dependent regional powers. It would have been useful for Jamal to have included Egypt, the most important battleground in the democratization debates. Iraq, painfully blessed by U.S. military liberation, might have made for an appropriate comparative case. So might have Turkey, where, for the past decade, Washington has accommodated itself to an elected government led by mild Islamists.

It might also have been useful for Jamal to devote more attention to how anti-American ideas and sentiments are communicated. Over the last decade, countless studies have blamed satellite television networks, such as Al Jazeera, for fueling anti-American sentiment. In the past two years, the focus has shifted to the role of the Internet and social media in mobilizing dissent and changing the contours of political discourse. Jamal does not shed much light on this new flow of ideas and information or explore whether it challenges or reinforces old cognitive biases.

But Of Empires and Citizens does capture something important about a bygone era of anti-Americanism rooted in the seemingly unchangeable patterns of an American imperium and the compliant dictators who abetted it. No matter how the troubled transitions under way in Egypt and elsewhere ultimately resolve themselves, there will be no going back to those old patterns. Autocrats and those who profit from their regimes can no longer assume either perpetual rule or unconditional U.S. support. Whether and how Arab views of the United States adapt to these new realities will ultimately be the test of Jamal's argument -- and of the ability of the United States to navigate the turbulent new politics of the Middle East.