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Deconstructing Anti-Americanism

by Jason H. Wasfy
The Tech (MIT)

OXFORD, England — Anti-Americanism appears to be heating up around the world. As Bush administration officials trade barbs with French and German leaders, and as the Muslim world increasingly feels under siege, the prospects of broad international cooperation against the al-Qaida terrorist network are fading. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is opportunities still abound for us Americans to reduce the mistrust between the United States and Europe, restoring the international goodwill that followed Sept. 11. Last week, about 70 young leaders explored the causes of anti-Americanism at a forum here in England with participants from the United States, Pakistan, India, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Ethiopia, Germany, Britain, and Ireland. What we learned at the forum was remarkable.

Many forum participants — Americans and non-Americans alike — agreed that while certain strands of anti-Americanism are reflexive and unreasonable, other strands stem from inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy. One participant complained that the American interest in democracy seems disingenuous in light of America’s history of propping up certain dictatorships. But another participant cited the successful intervention of Secretary of State Colin Powell to defuse a crisis between Morocco and Spain last year.

Europeans and others are unreasonable when they criticize us for acting like an overbearing superpower generally, then turn around and criticize us again for not doing enough to address the world’s problems. That sort of anti-Americanism is illegitimate. On the other hand, when the United States. wields its power to achieve selfish ends, inconsistent with our stated moral goals, we should expect resentment.

To President Bush’s credit, his announcement in this year’s State of the Union address of a renewed commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean is a welcome application of American power to address a pressing global issue. What I worry about most, however, is that some of President Bush’s advisers and supporters are encouraging him to adopt a more uncompromising foreign policy that makes our pro-democracy rhetoric appear hypocritical.

If President Bush veers to the right to satisfy conservatives, anti-Americanism may rise dramatically, undermining our war against terrorism. For example, Bush advisers have criticized the anti-war stance of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. But that stance reflects the will of the German people, as expressed through their robust democracy. So some Bush administration officials criticize other countries’ policies when those policies don’t fit into America’s broader foreign policy objectives — even if those offending policies develop from democratic outcomes.

That disregard for democratic legitimacy might spurn serious anti-Americanism if President Bush decides to pump oil from a post-war Iraq to finance America’s expenses from the war. It’s a tempting move that would blunt the fallout from President Bush’s tax cuts. But setting up a real post-war democracy in Iraq means setting up a country in which the people control their futures and their own resources to create those futures.

If we criticize Germany for acting democratically, and replace Saddam Hussein with another government not accountable to the Iraqi people, anti-Americanism will surely increase afterwards throughout the globe.

The best antidote to this threat of more anti-Americanism is clear, consistent American principles: self-determination, democracy, human rights, and unselfish compassion. But when we deviate from those principles, we undermine our moral standing throughout the world. And when we pursue selfish interests under the guise of those principles, we engender anti-Americanism that will undermine our war against terror.

Whatever anger exists in the rest of the world about American power, much of it has nothing to do with America exerting too much power or too little. Anger spikes when we insist on democracy when democracy serves our goals, and when we turn away from democracy when it no longer serves our interests. A recent editorial in the Beirut-based Daily Star echoes a common overseas perspective: “America has the ability to do great things … Unfortunately, though, its governments have tended to be easily distracted, especially when the tasks in question are not amenable to military solutions. That weakness must be prevented from creeping into the aftermath of the war in Iraq.”

We don’t have to abandon a muscular foreign policy that fights terrorism and spreads democracy to quell anti-Americanism. To bolster our standing in the world, we need to apply our principles more consistently and more fairly. That wouldn’t eliminate anti-Americanism — because surely some strands of anti-Americanism are mere products of America’s imposing power — but certainly it would reduce anti-Americanism to a far more tolerable level.

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