Obama, Arab & Muslim opinion and narratives: Thoughts & comments

Image form the Economist

Several matters related to problems in US policy in the Middle East, and the Muslim world more generally, and regional perceptions of that policy came up in the high-brow blogosphere. The most interesting was Walt’s discussion of “Why they hate us,” and the various op-eds about Arab disappointment with the Obama administration and Marc Lynch’s responses and thoughts on that issue. These are my unedited and likely ill-considered reflections and thoughts on that. Readers will know that this blog is skeptical and pessimistic generally, and especially so of the Obama administration’s Policy of Promises.

Walt v. Friedman on “Anti-Americanism”: Narrative or policy difference?

Last week, renowned IR scholar Steven Walt criticized Thom Friedman’s 28 November column in a post titled “Why they hate us (II): How many Muslims has the US killed in the last 30 years?” Friedman’s column, titled “America vs. the Narrative,” argued that Muslims look with on US policy in the Middle East with disapproval not because of some legitimate bone of contention, but instead because of a false “narrative” about US policy. Fiedman defines this “narrative” as follows:

The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

This is not a new or unique argument. One finds it in the writings of a number of prominent neo-conservatives and democracy hawks in the months and years after 11 September. Barry Rubin, Fuad Ajami and certain others were particularly happy with this line of argumentation. In particular, Rubin’s The Tragedy of the Middle East (Cambridge, 2002) and Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East (Oxford, 2004) come to mind. In any case, the argument that Friedman regurgitates is at the very best naive and at worst disingenuous. No person who studies American policy in the region or the area itself can say that American policy is directed at either pleasing or “rescuing Muslims,” as a matter of doctrine (it might be said that it is designed or considers not upsetting Muslims, however). The motivations behind the interventions Friedman mentions had nothing at all to do with a desire to do either of these things, being based on geo-political concerns first and foremost and secondarily on humanitarian concerns broadly and not particularly partisan with respect to religion. Walt calls Friedman’s “narrative,” “patronizing,” and states that he heard a more intriguing idea at a recent conference: “If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world [. . .] it should stop killing Muslims.” Of course Walt considers a deeper issue, what troubling role American military occupations and interventions play in shaping anti-American sentiments in the region.

With that in mind, Walt fields a table comparing US and “Muslim” fatalities in recent US military interventions.

Walt’s figures are “estimates deliberately chosen to favor the United States,” i.e. to give a “best case scenario” with respect to Muslim deaths. Thus, while one might be puzzled for the “n/a” designation for Muslim deaths in attacks on the US (especially the African embassy bombings and 9/11) or the lack of tabulation for the Balkan operations, the idea is to emphasize areas of conflict and contrast rather than overlap. In case, he concludes: “the United States has killed nearly 30 Muslims for every American lost. The real ratio is probably much higher, and a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities (based mostly on higher estimates of “excess deaths” in Iraq due to the sanctions regime and the post-2003 occupation) is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.” He qualifies that the numbers should looked at carefully, as other factors play into the deaths, especially in Iraq (both the sanctions period and Iraqi Freedom). Of course he also notes that “the fact that people died as a result of certain U.S. actions does not by itself mean that those policy decisions were wrong.”

Walt concludes that if one considers these figures he has to reject Friedman’s argument and acknowledge that Muslims dislike “mostly the actual things we have been doing in recent years.” Startlingly, Walt concludes that Muslims disagree with American policy not because they are to daft to grasp its good intentions, but because they find it harmful to what they regard as their vital interests and sensibilities in general. What neither Friedman or Walt addresses is that “Why they hate us” is not really something the United States ought to be asking of “Muslims.” All Muslims do not “hate” the US, in fact it has often been the case in polls, and as Muslims themselves will often say, the trouble is policy in a whole range of areas (not just killing Muslims). Muslims, like other people, look at the world with all sorts of issues in mind, not just Palestine or Iraq or religion.

Neither Friedman nor Walt address that the US supports a whole series of repressive governments with Muslim populations, which those peoples hold in deep contempt. Friedman’s argument would make more sense if it were to argue that American policy is not designed to deliberately oppress or kill Muslims, but simply happens to for geo-strategic reasons rather than ideological ones. Walt’s criticism is thus well founded. What it lacks is a discussion of why Muslims beyond the Middle East react negatively to US policy — much of that might have a heavier ideological component than in areas more directly affected by ill-considered or destructive American interventionism and adventurism. But it is not apparent that Muslims beyond the region are especially hostile to the US. What is more is that Friedman does not bother to distinguish between Muslims, Middle Easterners or Arabs (Walt does not either, but focuses on “Muslims” in a general way). So are we talking about Muslims or Arabs or Middle Easterners or what? It would appear (as has been noted here in the past) that the discussion is about Middle Eastern Muslims, and since Obama took office Israel, too. It does not make sense to speak of “Muslims” hating the US; there are specific population centers where US influence and anti-American sentiments are heavy.

For instance, it is very likely that negative views of the US in Turkey (which have been quite powerful in recent years) are the result of a sense that American policy has been bad for Turkey in recent years. The recent Pew survey reports that when asked “Will Obama be fair in the Middle East?” Indonesia’s figure (54%) for “yes” is significantly higher than any of those in the Middle East or Pakistan (17%). For comparison, 16% of Jordanians, 19% of Turks, 24% of Egyptians, and 23% of Lebanese answered “yes.” When asked “Will Obama be multi-lateral?” and “Is the US already multi-lateral?” Middle Eastern publics were far less likely to answer “yes,” than others. The European range for the first question was between 43% (Russia) and 69% (Germany); the Asian range was, 17% (Pakistan) and 66% (India); the Middle Eastern range was 20% (Jordan) and 56% (Israel); in Latin America it was 41% (Argentina) and 74% (Brazil); in Africa it was 66% (Nigeria) and 77% (Kenya). In Turkey the figure was 22%, in Indonesia it was 62%, higher than any other Muslim-majority public — the next highest was Egypt (31%). To the second question, whether the US was already multi-lateral, the figures were overall significantly lower: the highest figures were in India (81%), Israel (70%) and Kenya (74%). The next highest figures were in the lower 60’s. Among the Muslim publics, Indonesia was again the highest at 44% (not counting Nigeria, 66%). Among Muslim majority countries, Indonesia is the only one showing significant approval of American counter terrorism efforts. The Pew survey would be more suited to these issues if it included more non-Middle Eastern publics with significant Muslim populations or majorities, such as Bosnia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei and Senegal (recognizing that Pew does do surveys aimed at Muslims specifically). This would give a better sense of “Muslim opinion,” to whatever extent such a thing exists. The trouble appears to be in areas most heavily affected by US military and political influence, and those in their general vicinity affect by the fallout of that influence (by refugee flows, conflict, etc.). That is particularly true where American support for a particular government or faction goes contrary to the public will (i.e. dictatorships). In any case, as the point about Turkey is meant to say, dislike for the US comes from experience more than ideology in much of the Muslim world, as elsewhere. If Turkey is a place where the US is unpopular, it is obviously not because the US has sought to “rescue” or support Muslims there. It is because, especially in the run up to the Iraq War and afterward, American policy neglected and ignored what many Turks considered to be in their national interest. The same might be said elsewhere. Walt is right: the problem is not an imaginary narrative, but a clash of interests as seen by those out of government and out of power. But then, one might also consider any system of grievance or perception of interest an imaginary narrative, a social construct and mailable.

Arab perceptions of Obama: Lynch, Obama and why “words must mean something”

Marc Lynch at AbuArdvark gives a visceral critique of recent articles by Ajami, Eliot Abrams and Jackson Diehl, all of whom have lamented Obama’s unpopularity among Arabs and Muslims, attributing it variously to his lack of commitment to Bush-era democracy rhetoric, his lack of a human rights policy and so on. Lynch contends that

They are right about one thing, though:  Arab public opinion is disappointed with Obama.  But it isn’t because he hasn’t lived up to his predecessor’s commitment to democracy and reform.  Many of the same reformists cited favorably in these pieces have complained loudly, for years, that American policies towards Israel and the Palestinians, the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the Global War on Terror, and other deeply unpopular Bush administration policies badly undermined their credibility. Those complaints never seem to merit as much attention, for some reason.  And many of them hoped, with good reason, that Obama would help their cause by reversing those extremely unpopular policies.

The lessons of the Arab disenchantment are that Obama should deliver on his promises, not that he should abandon them, and that the Israeli-Palestinian track is for better or worse still what matters most in shaping Arab perceptions of American foreign policy.  There is no vindication of the Bush administration’s policies here, only frustration at his successor’s inability to rapidly reverse them.  And there, despite a great start on reframing relations with the Islamic world, a lot clearly still needs to be done.

There is truth here, but the contention that resolving the Palestinian problem would resolve the trouble America has with the way Arabs and Muslims look at the region is only partly true. Lynch is right to say that this is important in “shaping Arab perceptions,” but it does not do anything towards the reality of the policy more generally, which is likely to continue to irritate Arabs regardless of whether the Palestinian issue is settled (and it is unlikely that an American president would produce a solution that would significantly change the situation, anyhow). The emphasis of criticism would shift to issues that more heavily affect Arab polities directly, such as American support for repressive regimes, which do not emanate from the Palestinian issue. That the nature of American politics and strategic interest make broad changes in American policy in the area unlikely, raising expectations that some happy transformation is on horizon will lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

The rhetoric of the Cairo speech, for instance, is only worthy if it precedes real policy. The standout elements of those promises are most likely to be broken, perhaps not deliberately but broken nonetheless. This was the fundamental problem of the Bush approach, especially on democratization. The lesson of the Bush policy on democracy and Obama’s policy on the Palestinian track, Guantanamo and so on is: one ought not to promise what he knows he has no capacity (or will) to deliver. Whatever short-term and medium-term benefits might come from false and half-promises is undone by the ultimate results of policy, unless those miniature gains are capitalized on. As of yet, the Obama administration has not.

That said, it should be explicit, rather than unstated, that there is no altruism in American Middle policy regardless of what president carries it out. There will be Arabs disappointed with American policy in any case, because that policy is designed to suit and serve American interests and nobody else’s. Whether it is presented so as to make Arabs happy or not, most will know and understand that the United States is a foreign power with its own pursuits as the ultimate goal of its activity. American support for reform, democratic or otherwise, will be weak so long as the regimes in the region are deemed useful and friendly and their peoples see their interests as being out of line with a dominant US position there. Bush’s rhetoric was plainly disingenuous for many Arabs; Obama’s has been not much more, though less so because of the power of his ideas than because of his personal aura and good will for not being Bush. The misery of the Bush policy has proven to be durable in that it makes a change of course difficult and painful, having caused much misery and disorder. It is not easy clean up so large a mess. But the trouble many Americans have with that the goals of that policy were wrong but that it was done in an artless and violent way and that it was marketed poorly. The intentions are all the same, to state the obvious. Reform is a secondary, if not tertiary priority, under any administration. Lynch is right: more than reframing needs to go on, and Obama’s grace period has lasted too long. It has allowed his policy to go on lazily and timidly. As it stands the  Economist, on 28 November, was right to evoke those old lines from English class: “God save us always from the innocent and the good.”


9 thoughts on “Obama, Arab & Muslim opinion and narratives: Thoughts & comments

  1. I would’ve thought Indonesia’s numbers would be lower – historically they have been quite cold to the US and the West in general because of their support for the genocides in East Timor in the 80s and arguably to this day. Clinton famously said about Mr Suharto: “He’s our kind of guy”. See other criticism and discussion of the issue in Chomsky’s “Rogue States” and “Culture of terrorism”.

    It is because of this that I may attribute the higher numbers in Indonesia more to the fact that Obama lived there for some time in his childhood.

    • Those are both good points. But remember that the actions in Timor (and the conquest of Papua) were not terribly unpopular inside Indonesia. I’ve met more than a few Indonesians who cringe if someone refers to what their army did in Timor as “genocide”. I think that Obama lived there probably has a lot to do with those higher numbers, but Indonesia’s numbers are consistently higher than other Muslim publics (in 2000 they gave the US a 75% approval rating, it dipped in 2003 to 15% and went back up slowly afterward, almost certainly because of the invasion of Iraq), which shows that their views are influenced by US actions, but that the Middle Eastern publics are more so. I’m not especially familiar with contemporary US policy there (beyond Suharto), so I could be completely and utterly wrong.

  2. Good post.

    I’m somewhat perplexed as to why Walt didn’t mention support for oppressive regimes though, as you pointed out, given its prominence in debates over the course of US policy toward the Middle East (and the Maghreb region, which I’m always stunned doesn’t get more press coverage over here in the States).

    Your critique of Lynch is spot on too. He seems to be placing a few too many eggs in the Israeli-Palestinian basket. That does seem to be a general problem in the States however, many commentators seem to believe that “if only” we could somehow get a workable solution to the problem then perhaps all these other issues would just dissolve or whither. It strikes me as a tad naive to believe such a thing. The conflict of course is a problem and quite a prominent one at that, but it’s one of many and I don’t think it does anyone any good overstating its importance in the region.

    In regards to Friedman, he is someone I honestly try to ignore at this point. His columns are of value if you’re looking for what the general consensus of the elite political establishment in Washington is on a certain policy issue I suppose, but outside of that he hasn’t done anything I would call genuinely insightful in some time. The thing that makes me scratch my head with people like him is that they seem to have an entirely different set of standards and rules when it comes to US foreign policy. In essence, neither Friedman nor any other commentator would find it odd that Obamas domestic support has dropped some due to unfilfilled or broken promises. And yet, he sits there and acts dumbfounded when Arabs, Muslims, etc. have the exact same reaction (i.e. loss of positive attitude toward the US due to broken or unfilfilled promises). My question is, why? I don’t get it. Does he expect more leniency from Muslims, Arabs, etc. toward the US than he does anyone else?

  3. wonderful put up, very informative. I’m wondering why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You must continue your writing. I am confident, you have a great readers’ base already!

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