On any given day, hawks will mock Obama supporters because of the strong and obvious continuities in national security policy under Obama, and some of them will then turn around the next day to treat the unrealistic expectations of Obama-led change in U.S. foreign policy as a reasonable standard by which to judge the “success” of the Obama administration. “He did not magically eliminate decades of mistrust and suspicion in nine months–what a loser!” Joseph Loconte offers us a sample of the second line of attack:
Throughout the Bush presidency, opinion polling from the Pew Research Center trumpeted America’s “abysmal” approval ratings across the globe. The problem, pollsters suggested with numbing regularity, was that a “cowboy president” had inflamed the Muslim world—and America’s European allies—with his “unilateral” war on terrorism. The remedy, of course, was a new administration with a fresh approach: a president committed to multilateralism, smart diplomacy, and American soft power. Right on cue, a Pew report hailed Barack Obama’s election for inspiring “global confidence” in U.S. leadership and rescuing America’s reputation from eternal perdition.
This hagiographic storyline, however, is evaporating like a morning mist. A newer Pew survey suggests that most Islamic countries distrust the United States under the leadership of President Obama about as much as they did under President George W. Bush. Yes, majorities of the Muslim populations interviewed still believe that America plays a mostly destructive role in the world. Most view the United States as “an enemy” and “a military threat” to their own country. Most disapprove of the American-led effort to combat terrorism. Large numbers, in fact, voice strong support for terrorism and Osama bin Laden. Western Europeans, though expressing positive personal views of Obama, show little enthusiasm for key U.S. foreign policy objectives. In other words, anti-Americanism is alive and well in the age of Obama.
This is sloppy, weak stuff even by the standards of Weekly Standard-issue hawks such as Loconte. There may have been Obama voters who thought that simply changing the tone and style of the President and replacing one man with another would eliminate global antipathy, or perhaps some imagined that stories of his Muslim grandfather and his middle name would make people forget that Obama backed the bombing of Lebanon and Gaza and has continued the extremely unpopular drone strikes in Pakistan. However, no one paying any attention to the substance of the policies Obama endorsed believed any of this. No one with a modicum of respect for the intelligence of other nations ever believed this. Those who bristle at aggressive policies and U.S. hegemony were never going to become more favorably disposed towards them just because of a change in management.
After all, if policy has by and large remained the same, why would antagonism created by policy lessen? “Unilateralism” is not the important part of U.S. foreign policy that bothers Muslims around the world–it is the invasion of Muslim countries, the occupation of their lands and the killing of their co-religionists that incenses many of them. If Obama engages in most of the same actions, but does so on a more “multilateral” and consultative basis, what has actually changed as far as these publics are concerned?
If Europeans have little interest in “key U.S. foreign policy objectives,” the problem may be with the objectives Washington has rather than with the Europeans or Obama. Not supporting the expansion of NATO, for example, is not evidence of “anti-Americanism.” In truth, Europeans who refuse to give security guarantees to more of Russia’s neighbors are doing America a favor–they are refusing to let us make dangerous guarantees that would ruin us if we honored them. For that matter, an unwillingness to commit troops to Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO is not proof of anti-Americanism, either. It is a grudging acknowledgment of the absurdity of a European defensive alliance waging a prolonged counterinsurgency in central Asia to “defend” the world’s remaining superpower against Pashtun tribesmen.
Loconte bemoans how little Pakistanis trust the U.S., but then why would they? For years we backed a deeply unpopular dictator and resisted his removal from power as long as we could. It is our military campaign and that of the Pakistani army urged on by our government that has been creating a massive refugee population in western Pakistan. Pakistanis might reasonably conclude that we are using their country as little more than a firing range, and their attitudes would worsen accordingly. Add to that a hefty dose of conspiratorial paranoia that the U.S. is working to sell out Pakistan to India, and you have a nation that is obviously not going to be placated by a few pleasant speeches. A foreign nation’s distrust of the U.S. may sometimes increase in direct proportion to the closeness of our government’s relationship with theirs, especially when that close relationship has the practical effect of subordinating their perceived national interests to our stated objectives in their country and region. Loconte digs no deeper into why a mere 13% of Pakistanis believe that Obama will “do the right thing” in world affairs. All that matters to him is scoring the lame partisan and ideological point that Pakistanis have not rushed to embrace policies that are doing serious damage to the political stability and physical security of their country just because Obama is President.
It is no surprise that the majority Muslim nation with the most positive view of the United States’ role in the world out of the five polled is Indonesia, which is the one country that does not have a close political-military relationship with Washington as Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan do. Deep distrust in Turkey is pretty easily understood. Loconte willfully fails to understand it, absurdly citing Washington’s strong support for Turkish E.U. membership. Any close observer knows is no longer very important to most Turks and was in any case counterproductive and actually worked against Turkey’s prospects for admission. As if Turkish entry were not controversial enough, the last administration gave its opponents the added ammunition that it was something Washington was trying to force down Europe’s throat.
Turks overwhelmingly opposed the invasion of Iraq, they correctly see Iraqi Kurdistan as a haven for PKK terrorists, they fear the potential for Kurdish separatism encouraged by the example of Iraqi Kurds, and they generally see the alliance with Washington as an increasingly one-sided arrangement that has ceased to benefit them. Turkish “anti-Americanism” is also a function of the further democratization of Turkey: the broad mass of Turkish voters has finally been permitted to elect and retain a government that better reflects their views and interests, which means that the artificial and automatic deference that the old Kemalist elite gave to Washington’s regional policies is a thing of the past. Egyptians understandably take a poor view of the government that helps prop up their dictator. Iraqi negative attitudes are self-explanatory. When it has been our standard procedure to trample on, ignore or abuse these Muslim nations, most of which are technically our allies, what sense does it make to complain about the “anti-Americanism” of foreign nations?
We should also remember that nations have divergent interests. Even if Washington were not so oblivious to public opinion in allied countries, approval of U.S. policy would not automatically follow. No matter how attentive to their other concerns Washington might become, Turks are not going to endorse harsh anti-Iranian policies, nor will they cheer the next Israeli military campaign against one of its neighbors, because they take a significantly different view of the relevant issues. If we stopped subsidizing Mubarak’s government tomorrow, most Egyptians would not suddenly become more sympathetic to U.S. effective support for the status quo in Palestine or the continued military presence in Iraq. I could go on, but you get the idea.