Managing Mideast’s Anti-Americanism

Anti-Americanism remains strong in the Muslim world, exacerbated by the kind of crude bigotry in a video that stoked the latest violence against U.S. diplomatic outposts and the killing of the American ambassador in Libya. Cool heads are needed to manage this problematic relationship, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Reactions to the deadly incident in Benghazi and the less lethal protest at the U.S. embassy in Cairo have been part of a swirl of grief, anger, bigotry, diplomacy, politics and much else. We should keep a few essentials in mind.

What took place was not a single type of phenomenon, executed by a single type of perpetrator. We are seeing not only spontaneous sentiment of masses, and not only conspiratorial behavior by small nefarious groups. It is instead a mixture. The still-inconclusive reporting from Benghazi suggests that an armed group may have taken advantage of what would otherwise have been an unarmed though still ugly protest.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 12, 2012. (State Department photo)

As for the mass, mostly spontaneous, portion of what has occurred, there is enough history of this sort of outburst involving Western interests in that part of the world to conclude that this is a phenomenon that for all practical purposes is here to stay. We [the United States] will be unable to eliminate it; we need to deal with it and try to mitigate its damaging effects.

The history prior to the most recent episode includes popular reactions to perceived offenses ranging from cartoons in European periodicals to destruction of Korans by American forces in Afghanistan. However much we may understandably believe that “a fifth of humanity surely … can withstand the insults of a half-wit,” telling that to ourselves, or others, does nothing to calm things down or to preclude future occurrences.

It also is inevitable there will be more actions or statements by Westerners that will trigger such outbursts. Some triggers will be accidental, such as the destruction of the Korans in Afghanistan. Others will involve the thoughtless comments of televangelists or two-bit pastors, or even, as in the current case, instigators who expect a violent response but go ahead and do what they are going to do anyway.

In light of these inevitabilities, the main policy objective should be to dissociate the United States, and the U.S. government and Americans generally, as much as possible from what is thoughtless and offensive, while reiterating the importance of freedom of speech despite the unpleasant products that exercise of that freedom sometimes entails.

In the current case, as viewing of the video in question ought to make clear, policy-makers need have no concern that they are criticizing something that has artistic or any other value. The statement that the U.S. embassy issued after the video had begun stirring resentment, but before the protest at the embassy or the attack in Benghazi, may not have been perfect but it exemplified the kind of message that needs to be conveyed.

To suggest that the message in such situations ought to be substantially different or to be replaced by mere pugnaciousness is dumb. To suggest that the embassy’s statement was not issued before the incidents at the embassy and the Benghazi consulate but instead was “the Obama administration’s first response” to the incidents is dishonest.

The role that any organized violent groups had in the Benghazi event is a reminder of two things. One is the nature of what was left in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, how far Libyan politics and society have to go to reach anything approaching stability, and how insufficient was the thought given to this when the West intervened in the Libyan insurrection.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment observes that “the weak legitimacy and resources of the country’s provisional government” have resulted in a governmental response to Salafi violence that “has blended toleration and active collaboration.”

The situation also is a reminder of how even small terrorist groups feed off larger resentments. Radical ideologies and conspiratorial plots may be part of any act of terrorism, but widespread anger and anti-Americanism provides fuel that determines to a large extent what conspirators can do. General sentiments toward the United States matter.

The most general lesson to take away from this week’s incidents is that they are a manifestation of a context of suspicion that colors how almost anything the United States does in the Muslim world is interpreted. That context helps to explain why some things the United States does that are in no way anti-Muslim are nonetheless viewed as if they are.

The context also exacerbates the negative repercussions of some U.S. postures and initiatives, from use of military force to maintenance of some alliances, making the repercussions worse than one might otherwise expect.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Managing Mideast’s Anti-Americanism

  1. hammersmith46
    September 14, 2012 at 20:57

    reports indicate he died in a manner similar to gaddafi, right down to the sexual assault. ironic.

  2. Aaron
    September 14, 2012 at 12:47

    Bobzz is absolutely right, except my idea of East Jerusalem would be that of a shared capital politically both for Israel and a Palestinian state, and certainly NOT physically divided with a wall and barbed wires like Berlin during the Cold War.

    And I can fully relate to Borat’s sentiment when it comes to Israel despite that I totally and absolutely disagree with its policies toward the Palestinians who also have the undeniable right of self-determination.

    And regarding Rehmat, I think he means that it’s all about politics and US foreign policy whenever he refers to “anything Zionist”.

    • bobzz
      September 14, 2012 at 13:42

      Surely, I agree with your assessment, Aaron. I did not mean the division to sound like the Berlin Wall. If the heat ever simmers down (I doubt, but hope) negotiations can begin about a lot of things. But America has to be more even handed and remove Israel’s ring from its nose. As a Christian, my trust is in God, whatever happens, not realpolitik. But if I were a politician, it would make sense to impose a peace process (yes, “impose”) to calm Muslim hatred of our government and to offset the growing influence of India, China, and even Russia in the Middle East. This would also calm Israel. I am not naive enough to believe any of this will happen, but I still pray for it.
      And yes, if we were talking about a nut and bolt factory, Rehmat would think it was a Zionist enterprise:) Just joshing, Rehmat.

  3. bobzz
    September 14, 2012 at 11:32

    The Rhemat and Borat debate continues. I am going to try to take a middle road because I want peace. Rehmat is right, I think, when he says, “The fact is – Muslims, in great majority, don’t hate American people – they hate American governments’ blind support for the Zionist entity…” Borat is right in saying Israel is a sovereign state, without the ‘piece of shit’ remark. (I disagree with Rhemat over Christianity, but that does not make him a piece of shit.)
    Rhemat, the Jews have a legal right to the land behind the 1967 borders. You will say it is not for European/Russian Jews, but when Israel became a sovereign state, she could admit whomever she wishes. Further, the Palestinians are going to have to relent on a full right of return. Grant the full R of R, and Israel’s place in the sun after centuries of persecution (due to the church/state nexus, I am sorry to say) culminating in the Shoah is gone.
    That said, Borat, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is barbaric and unworthy of her. You will point to the rockets and the intifada, but how would you like it if major powers kicked you and your neighbors off the land that you had lived on for centuries—eminent domain on a large scale. You would be militant too. And no, the Muslims would not wipe you off the map if you gave up the settlements and lived behind the 1967 borders. The Arab Union has long since made peace with the idea of Israel’s presence. And Israel will have to give East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. If the US would tell Israel that they will stand behind them if they lived behind the 67 borders, and if Israel would do so, the whole middle east would calm down. If Israel refused to do that, then we should cut off all foreign aid to Israel. And why would we do this? To save Israel from herself. “Bibi” is leading you down the garden path. You must know that more Israelis are emigrating than immigrating. There is a reason for that. Now, both of you can dislike me.

  4. hammersmith
    September 14, 2012 at 09:52

    but it is on palestinian land.

  5. hammersmith
    September 14, 2012 at 09:31

    This kind of article, the u.s. “managing” this or that, reminds me of konrad audenauer, the post wwii chancellor of w. germany who remarked that the brits (in that period) acted like a rich man who had lost his money but did not yet fully realize it yet. american policy makers and media consistently conduct themselves as if the mideast exists as some sort of mandate bestowed on the u.s. by god knows who. no wonder people r flying airplanes into ur buildings and murdering ur diplomats. as pat b’s recent article suggests, perhaps it is time to come home and get a grip on ourselves.

  6. Hillary
    September 14, 2012 at 07:16

    But the Mideast’s Anti-Americanism was the PNAC plan from the very start.

    The PNAC neocon Jewish American team successfully guided the US into this.

    Only the Jewish State of Israel benefits from a Christian V Muslim “war”.

    The rape of Palestine and the expulsion of Palestinians can continue unopposed

  7. F. G. Sanford
    September 13, 2012 at 13:13

    “We came…we saw…he died! Cackle cackle cackle!” 30,000 civilian deaths from NATO bombing couldn’t result in ‘bow-back’ now, could it?

    • F. G. Sanford
      September 13, 2012 at 13:18

      Sorry-that should say BLOW-back!

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