They got it right: America is their enemy

The Region: 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.

US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in flames 370 (photo credit: reuters)
US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in flames 370
(photo credit: reuters)
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.
No 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.
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 situation there.
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, won’t help.
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 assassinated.
Ultimately, to do away with these problems US policy would actually have to help Islamist regimes to power, give them money and whitewash their extremism.
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 US popularity.
• 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 here.
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 philosophy.
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 traditionalist clerics.
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 else sees.
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