WITHIN months of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the global surge of sympathy for the United States began to ebb. Before the invasion of Iraq, London’s Sunday Times reported that equal numbers of Britons ranked Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush as the top threat to world peace. In France, a book claiming that Washington itself had sponsored the 9/11 attacks became a huge best seller, and in Germany a full 20 percent of the population endorsed this view.
Three years and two wars later, attitudes toward America have hardened still further. A worldwide poll taken last March found that the United States’ favorability ratings have fallen to critical levels, dropping precipitously in most West European countries and to 5 percent in Jordan. Meanwhile, in October, a columnist in The Guardian mused on the coming presidential election, “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr. — where are you now?”
When a columnist for a leading newspaper of a leading American ally seems openly to call for the assassination of a sitting president (the day after the election, Britain’s Daily Mirror ran the headline, “How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?”), it’s time to start worrying.
Of late, a whole shelf of books has been published attempting to explain why people hate America so much. These works fall roughly into two categories: left-wing attacks on the United States, and attacks from the right on those who attack it. Think of the first group as the anti-Americans, and the second as the anti-anti-Americans. Just about all these two factions can agree on is that anti-Americanism, in one form or another, is almost as old as the country itself — and that it has recently grown a lot worse.
Consider first the views of the antis. Americans — as the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier recently suggested in his inventive but maddening movie “Dogville” — are, by turns, materialistic, ignorant, rapacious and brutal. Arundhati Roy, the Indian author of one good novel and many peevish essays, complains in her strident broadside, “An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire,” that the United States suffers from a “self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony” and is led by a genocidal coward who manipulates a craven press to do his bidding.
In less hysterical terms, the Washington-based British scholar Anatol Lieven laments (in his well-written and well-researched “America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism”) that Americans are excessively religious and nationalistic; worse, they seem determined to inflict their Old Testament values on the rest of the world. It’s the “self-congratulatory guff” of this civilizational mission (in the words of Will Hutton, another British writer and the author of the cranky “Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World”) that drives many of the anti-Americans around the bend; if only the United States would act more like other countries — especially those in kinder, gentler, more cosmopolitan Europe, Hutton says — much of the resentment would dissipate.
There is something to such arguments, at least the more moderate ones. It’s not hard to see why the puritanical moralism of the United States and its vigorous pursuit of self-interest rubs both secular Europeans and impoverished Muslims the wrong way.
The problem with the anti-Americans’ complaints, however, is that they are often undermined by bad faith. Some of the critics have never even bothered to visit the United States. And even those who have (like Hutton) or who live here (like Lieven) frequently sound as though they haven’t and don’t. When Hutton fulminates that national democracy in the United States has descended to the level of “pre-Enlightenment Europe,” it becomes hard to take the rest of his charges seriously. And Lieven undermines his otherwise lucid writing when he insists that there is little tolerance for dissent in American public discourse. Has he not seen “Fahrenheit 9/11” or visited a newsstand lately? The venom and inaccuracy of such charges suggest that the anti-Americans are motivated by something more basic than disagreements over policy or the personality of a particular president.
Also disturbing is the way many of these writers emphasize America’s relationship with Israel. There’s nothing wrong with complaining about Washington’s strategy in the Middle East; reasonable people can disagree. But one should be skeptical of a writer like Lieven who refers to the pro-Israel lobby as having an “iron grip” on Washington or who labels a contemporary pro-Israeli Lebanese-American writer an “Arab Josephus” — a comparison (to Flavius Josephus, the Hellenized Jewish historian of the ancient world often known for his cowardice and treachery) that manages to combine several layers of racial condescension in two words. Such language is not new; anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism have run together at least since the 1930’s, when French writers denounced the avaricious United States as “Uncle Shylock.” But the modern anti-Americans would serve themselves better by taking care to untangle the two.
Enter the anti-antis, who seize on these faults to mount a spirited counteroffensive. Three new books lead the charge: “Hating America,” a richly detailed if pedestrian chronicle of anti-Americanism through the ages by Barry and Judith Colp Rubin (two conservative Middle East experts); “Understanding Anti-Americanism: Its Origins and Impact at Home and Abroad,” a collection of polemical essays examining the phenomenon around the world, edited and introduced by Paul Hollander (a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and himself the author of a book entitled “Anti-Americanism”); and, the most idiosyncratic of the three, the wildly discursive and undisciplined “Anti-Americanism,” by Jean-François Revel, a rare pro-American member of the French Establishment, who fills in the picture from Paris.
The three books are united by rage at America’s enemies — with a venom that mirrors the anti-Americans’ own. In none of them, however, has the excess of spleen produced clarity, fair-mindedness or nuance.
The anti-antis reject their opposites’ claim that the problem with America is its behavior or its president. Instead, they argue, America-bashing derives from more fundamental sources: the resentment of once-great societies eclipsed by Yankee upstarts, and of those unable to participate in America’s bounty. As Revel writes, much of European “anti-Americanism stems fundamentally from our continent’s loss during the 20th century of its 600-year leadership role”; Bernard Lewis, writing about the Arab world, has made virtually the same claim. In Revel’s terms, “the principal function of anti-Americanism has always been, and still is, to discredit liberalism by discrediting its supreme incarnation,” an argument that echoes President Bush’s line that “so long as we hold dear to our freedoms, the enemy will hate us, because they hate freedom.” Or as Hollander puts it, “The deepest and broadest source of anti-Americanism . . . is the aversion to (or, at best, ambivalence about) modernity, which the United States most strikingly represents.” Add to this a few other ingredients — “a romantic as well as Marxist anti-capitalism . . . the personal and cultural problems peculiar to intellectuals; the specter of standardization and homogenization associated with the spread of American mass culture” — and the picture starts to seem complete.
Anti-Americanism, in this view, also proves useful for covering up one’s own shortcomings. French intellectuals, Revel says, focus on despising America so they can ignore their own blunders and console themselves for their loss of linguistic, cultural and political influence. Similarly, as Salman Rushdie wrote in 2002, Arab leaders use the United States as “a smoke screen for Muslim nations’ many defects — their corruption, their incompetence, their oppression of their own citizens, their economic, scientific and cultural stagnation.” Bashing Washington, the Rubins argue, is a convenient way for despotic and incompetent regimes to distract their subjects from the real source of their problems: the regimes themselves.
Several of these points, like many of those made by the anti-Americans, ring true. If hatred of the United States is rational, why has it persisted for so many years in the face of different kinds of American behavior? As Revel says, the hallmark of fanaticism is “the way it seizes on a certain behavior of the hated object and sweepingly condemns it, only to condemn with equal fervor the opposite behavior shortly after — or even simultaneously.” And, indeed, at various times, the United States has been roundly attacked — often by the same people, and in similar language — for being both too engaged in the world and not engaged enough. Anti-American Islamists almost always ignore recent United States action on behalf of Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and elsewhere.
That said, it beggars belief to argue, as these writers do, that anti-Americanism stems solely from the neuroses of its proponents, that there’s no link at all between America-bashing and George W. Bush. How else to explain the unparalleled current intensity?
Like the anti-Americans, moreover, the anti-antis make their own mistakes in describing American society. Revel is so adamant about rebutting every French criticism of the United States that he mischaracterizes the country as profoundly as do Lieven or Hutton. This forces him into some bizarre contortions. He claims, for example, that there was nothing even slightly fishy about the 2000 presidential election, and that it’s just as easy to get guns in Europe as in America (ignoring the point that Europeans seem to use them less). The Rubins, similarly, manage to discuss anti-Americanism in Chile without an examination of Washington’s support for the 1973 coup there, an egregious and telling omission.
Even more disturbing is what the anti-antis advise for United States policy. Roger Kimball (the managing editor of The New Criterion magazine and a contributor to Hollander’s book) insists that since anti-Americanism has nothing to do with American behavior, there’s no reason to change that behavior. On the contrary, Kimball says, we must stay the course, for “the current orgy of anti-Americanism, fanned by the war with Iraq, will dissipate in proportion to the resoluteness demonstrated by the United States.” Not only is this unlikely; a damn-the-torpedoes approach of this sort would also be disastrous after three years of blunders in Iraq and elsewhere.
So, finally, which side is right? Do they hate us for what we do or for what we are? Or for what they are? Once one has sorted through the careless polemics in both camps, the unsatisfying answer seems to be that neither side is right (entirely) or that both are right (in part). Roy, Lieven and Hutton exaggerate the United States’ flaws and underplay the way the country gets damned for whatever it does. Revel, the Rubins and Hollander & Company minimize the country’s very real problems and misdeeds.
Meanwhile, the Nov. 2 elections haven’t helped clarify matters. When voters endorsed Bush for a second term, the difference between anti-Bushism and anti-Americanism abroad became harder to distinguish. That’s not to say, however, that a Kerry victory would have resolved this question either. There’s little doubt that Kerry would have turned a more conciliatory (even French-speaking) face to the world. If, as many anti-Americans insist, they are really only Bush-haters, the change in style could have mollified them; and it certainly would have deprived them of some ammunition. But on substance — the future of Iraq, the Kyoto Protocols, the International Criminal Court, etc. — Kerry’s foreign policy would probably not have been much different from Bush’s. Given the pressures on America abroad and the demands of the public at home, especially since 9/11 and the Iraq war, a modern president (whether Republican or Democratic) would have little leeway in foreign affairs.
What this suggests is that the distinction between what the United States does and what it is may actually be less clear — and less helpful — than many of the anti-Americans imply. There is no point in wishing, as Hutton does, that the United States would suddenly start acting in a more “European” fashion.
Which leads to a gloomy conclusion. A more conciliatory American tone in the years ahead might quiet the country’s critics somewhat. But nothing Washington could realistically do would be likely to change the minds of those determined, for their own reasons, to hate it. Anti-Americanism is something we’re stuck with for at least as long as America remains pre-eminent. Perhaps the most Americans can hope for is that the animosity won’t intensify any time soon. But if it doesn’t, that’s probably only because, as all these books agree, it couldn’t get much worse.