One of President Barack Obama’s main themes is to convince Middle East Islamists
that America is not their enemy. But the reason this strategy never works is
that the radicals know better. The United States is their enemy.
amount of sympathy, empathy, economic aid, apology or appeasement will change
this fact. Nor did such efforts succeed in making either Obama or the United
States popular in such circles and the tens of millions of people influenced by
them. The only thing surprising about all of this is that so few “experts” and
politicians seem to comprehend it.
There are a number of reasons why this
is true, though many people mistakenly think they must find just one factor that
explains this reality. The causes of this enmity include:
• American policies.
True, the United States has supported Israel and also many Arab regimes over the
years – including countries like Morocco, Tunisia, post- Gaddafi Libya, Egypt,
pre-Hezbollah Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman,
post-Saddam Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. The Islamists are equally unhappy
with the US support for the Palestinian Authority.
In short, US support
for any non-radical regime makes radicals angry and will always do so.
what if the United States is nice to radical or Islamist regimes? Will that
help? No. The radicals still keep their goals – which include throwing US
influence out of the region and overthrowing its allies – no matter what
Washington tries to do to please them. In the context of their ideology, they
interpret US concessions as signs of weakness which thus invite them to become
even more militant and aggressive.
In Libya and Iraq, the governments
have been pretty much directly installed by America. Thus, anyone who wants to
overthrow those governments has a strong vested interest in hating and attacking
Americans. The assassination of the ambassador to Libya wasn’t an accident or
the result of a video but the inevitable and logical outcome of the political
As for Israel, giving that country less help would not
change the radical view. Only if the United States had the same policy as Hamas,
Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood might it be forgiven. Merely putting more
space between the United States and Israel, to paraphrase Obama’s stated
intention, won’t do it. Even brokering a comprehensive peace agreement between
Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which isn’t going to happen of course,
On the contrary, the radicals – especially Hamas, its
Egyptian backers and Iran – would go into a frenzy of denunciation and attempt
to destroy the arrangements, the failure of which would then be blamed on
America. In the Middle East, peacemakers aren’t blessed, they’re
Ultimately, to do away with these problems US policy would
actually have to help Islamist regimes to power, give them money and whitewash
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And we can all see the
results have not been good, either in terms of US interests or even in terms of
• American values and culture. While the mere fact that a
highly secular, largely hedonistic and generally free lifestyle is practiced in
the United States raises the Islamists’ ire, there is far more involved
The United States is the world’s leading exporter of culture,
regarding everything from T-shirts to films and democratic ideas. As such, it
inevitably subverts traditional Islamic society and poses as a rival alternative
to the kind of system the Islamists want to impose. There is simply no way
around this conflict. It is not an imagined one and remains in effect no matter
what political policy a US government follows.
• America as an example to
their own society. If the United States succeeds with a “Satanic” standpoint,
how can Islamists persuade their people that Allah is on their side? America
must be seen to fail, either through propaganda or by its actual collapse, at
least in terms of the Middle East. Otherwise, the United States will remain an
attractive model for many, prompting everything from immigration to political
Obviously a distinction can be drawn between, on one hand,
winning over the radicals and their supporters, and winning over ordinary Arabs.
The problem is that most of the latter group gets its worldview, news and spin
from radical sources, be they Islamists, militant Arab nationalists or
In other words, no matter what the United States
does it will not be interpreted – especially by the masses – based on the US
government’s statements or intentions but through the filter of a very different
culture and worldview that has a good deal of hostility in it and is prone to
xenophobia and conspiracy theories.
By the same token, to be hated the
United States doesn’t have to do anything wrong. It just has to be itself and
pursue its own legitimate interests. This is a point that many Americans –
including “experts” and leaders – seem to have great difficulty in grasping.
What you say is not what someone else hears; what you do is not what someone
Finally, the radicals – which include a large portion of
governments, political movements, teachers, clerics and journalists – will
deliberately do everything they can to discredit the United States and foment
popular hatred against it. That includes using anything they can, be it a video,
the slaying of Osama bin-Laden, accusations of atrocities, and so on, whether
the specific accusations are true or false, consciously misinterpreted or
misunderstood on ideological grounds.
They will never run out of reasons
to hate America or ammunition for their efforts to convince others to do so. One
conclusion that can be drawn from this assessment is that the traditional
arsenal of diplomacy – credibility, deterrence, power – is what’s important, not
popularity. The same principle applies to allies, of course, who must feel that
their friend or patron is strong and reliable.
Such an approach has not
been the one pursued during the past four years. As for the next four years, the
vote count is not in yet.
The writer is director of the Global Research
in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and
editor of The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal. His
latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for
Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The
Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center is at