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The Dangerous Misuse of ...Anti-Americanism...

Ali S. Wyne

Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has skillfully employed rhetoric to legitimize its course of foreign policy: The centrality of terms such as “the war on terrorism” and “stay the course” in contemporary political debates attests to its success. While intellectuals have criticized many of its stock phrases, they have, remarkably, failed to subject the term “anti-Americanism” to serious scrutiny: In particular, they have failed to challenge the Bush administration’s contention that opposition to American foreign policy and anti-Americanism are one and the same.

As the Pew Global Attitudes Project convincingly documents, while opposition to American foreign policy is indeed pervasive, resentment of American culture is limited. This disparity is to be expected. The twin pillars of American culture, individual freedom and pride in the capitalist ethic, have been remarkably stable since our nation’s birth. American foreign policy, by contrast, has varied dramatically during that time, encompassing everything along the continuum from isolationism to imperialism. This distinction is of paramount importance, because the proper definition of anti-Americanism is opposition to the enduring principles of American society, not to America’s conduct in the world, which does not always reflect those principles. Because, however, the Bush administration has conflated the two so frequently, it appears that resentment of American foreign policy is starting to spill over into resentment of American people.

Indeed, because of its preference for simplistic dichotomies, the Bush administration is leaving outsiders with little option but to be “anti-American” or “pro-American.” Given this stark choice, and the imprudent course of American foreign policy in the past five years, it is remarkable that real anti-Americanism (against the American people rather than the Bush administration’s policies) has not increased by more than it has during this time. That global public opinion has not appreciably shifted against the American people signifies that its reservoir of support for democracy, capitalism, and other American values runs deep.

Nonetheless, as anti-Americanism has gradually increased since 9/11, the Bush administration has taken note, and formulated its policies accordingly. If the United States comes to believe that a vast segment of the global population — ostensibly in Arab and Muslim countries — holds Americans (not merely American foreign policy) in contempt, and further believes that mainstream opinion supports its belief, it is likely to respond to foreign sentiment in an adversarial manner. This simple logic explains why it has placed such great emphasis on acquiring and using military power, even as armed force’s utility is rapidly declining. At present, the United States spends approximately 500 times as much on national defense as it does on public diplomacy.

If America’s foreign policy outlook continues to assume a Manichean character, citizens of these Muslim countries will grow increasingly vocal in their criticisms of the American government, and of the American people for supporting its policies. In fact, according to poll after poll, people abroad are increasingly likely to believe that America is using the war on terrorism as a guise to project its power across a wider arc. If this cynicism festers, the Bush administration will grow deeper in its conviction that anti-American animus, rather than grounded grievances, motivates criticism of its conduct abroad. The extreme limit of these ping-pong exchanges is a scenario in which more aggressive posturing here provokes actual anti-Americanism abroad.

This scenario is not as implausible as some might argue. Indeed, owing to the ruinous aftermath of the war in Iraq and our perceived lack of objectivity in arbitrating the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other phenomena, outsiders are beginning to ask themselves, “Does current American foreign policy truly depart from American values, or does it actually reflect them?” Of far greater importance than their answer to this question is the fact that they are even asking it in the first place.

Many of the outcomes that I earlier noted may well have been averted had intellectuals more proactively scrutinized the Bush administration’s linguistics. They are, after all, a democracy’s first line of defense against government malfeasance. Even as citizens should ultimately wield power in a true democracy, they critically depend for the formulation of their own viewpoints on the judgments of experts. If intellectuals fail to document and disseminate the truth, citizens are crippled in their endeavor to hold their leaders accountable.

While many scholars (largely comprising the “neoconservative” community) genuinely support the Bush administration’s problematic application of the term “anti-American”, and may therefore be criticized for actively legitimizing a misnomer, a much larger number simply unconsciously imbue it with credence. One example strikes me as particularly illustrative.

In an essay that he wrote shortly after 9/11, the leading liberal intellectual Stanley Hoffmann, asserted (as many others have) that opposition to American foreign policy is a “strain of anti-Americanism,” — carelessly conflating the two. Later, on, however, he concludes that “Those who attack the specific American policies are often more ambivalent than hostile … The real United States haters are those whose anti-Americanism is provoked by dislike of America’s values, institutions, and society…. ” That he uses the word “real” suggests that he actually recognizes the difference between profound and transient anti-Americanism. Indeed, by describing critics of American foreign policy as “ambivalent,” he suggests that they are opposing a dynamic element of American society — namely, its conduct abroad — not its enduring principles.

Hoffmann’s work, then, exemplifies the dichotomy that largely accounts for today’s misguided characterizations of anti-Americanism: even though he argues that anti-Americanism as employed by the Bush administration is a misnomer, Hoffmann uses the term in precisely this incorrect manner. If Hoffmann, as a leading scholar of international relations, is so casual in his use of the term, can other political observers be expected to exhibit greater semantic discipline? More importantly, can the American people, upon whose engagement our democracy rests, be expected to challenge the Bush administration’s misuse of the term anti-Americanism?

Because the intellectual community and the public have not (at least in any sustained manner) challenged the application of anti-Americanism, the Bush administration has faced fewer constraints on its ability to project American power, especially in the Middle East. Our only hope is that geopolitical realities awaken this government to the peril of its rhetoric. If the devolution of Iraq into chaos; the Taliban’s reassertion of power in Afghanistan; the rise of Hizballah in Lebanon; and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories do not achieve this objective, I fear that nothing will.