Michael H. Hunt: Caught in Contradictions: The United States and the Middle East

articles by Michael H. HuntThe popular uprisings of the sort now spreading across North Africa to the Persian Gulf were hard to anticipate—but the American response wasn’t. U.S. history is filled with moments like the present one when upheavals abroad generated great hopes for the advance of freedom. Those moments have also evoked deep anxieties rooted in a suspicion that most peoples reaching for freedom, especially those outside the North Atlantic world, lacked the “maturity” to manage it.

Reactions to revolutions in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 set the pattern (as I suggested some time ago in Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy). Fear generally trumped hope throughout the twentieth century when U.S. policymakers dealt with the third world. They came to prefer amenable strongmen over hard-to-control popular movements (a point systematically developed in David Schmitz’s two-volume treatment of U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships). The Cold War struggle accentuated this fear of popular movements, imagined as vulnerable to communist manipulation, and the impulse to align with military and other autocratic regimes. (This argument is compellingly developed in Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War.)

This long-lived set of hopes and fears has given rise to a fragile, conflicted U.S. view of the uprisings still playing out in North Africa and the Middle East. Policymakers and commentators dream of benign transformations, but political Islam haunts those dreams. The triumph of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the 2001 attack in New York and Washington have evoked free-floating fears of the sort once attached to communism. Will Islamist groups or “extremists” manage to hijack the current democratic initiatives resulting in rabid anti-Americanism and damage to U.S. interests? That is the question echoing in the media and official pronouncements.

Surveys conducted last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project suggest that anxious observers have reason to worry—but not exactly for the reasons they think. Any hijackings will likely be accomplished with the assistance of populations with a high regard for Islam as a political as well as spiritual force. Tellingly in Egypt, which, along with Turkey and Iran, is a major presence within the region, 85 percent of those polled last year (at a time the Mubarak government demonized the Muslim Brotherhood) had a positive view of Islam’s role in politics.

Pew surveys also suggest that governments—whether overtly Islamist—are not likely to seek close U.S. ties if they are responsive to their people. General perceptions of the United States as a country was unfavorable among 82 percent of Egyptians, and 59 percent had an unfavorable view of the American people. Turks were equally negative, with 74 percent unfavorable on the United States generally and 70 percent with a low estimate of Americans. Questions about U.S. policy produced equally negative results. Better than four out of five Egyptians felt Washington did not consider the interests of others and that U.S. and other NATO troops should leave Afghanistan. Turks were similarly doubtful of Washington’s professions of good will, with two thirds opposing the Afghan war.

Public relations gimmicks and elaborate rhetorical appeals are not going to make much of a dent in the preference for political Islam and the deep, pervasive doubt about the U.S. regional role. The ostensible champion of democratic values has displayed a marked preference for working with monarchies and strongmen because they are willing to strike deals assuring U.S. access to oil, blunting threats to Israel, and containing communists and (more recently) terrorists. Real democratic movements in Algeria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Turkey have at minimum made Washington nervous. You can be sure even now an anxious Obama White House is asking for lists of which prospective Egyptian leaders are with us and which against us and for programs that will tip the political scale in the favor of the friendlies.

If gentle pressure fails, Washington can always turn to the carefully assembled system of military bases, military training programs, and covert operatives that has figured so prominently in building up U.S. control. (Readers wanting more detail on these general points can turn to a good set of recent histories by Douglas Little, Rhashid Khalidi, Melani McAlister, and Geoffrey Wawro.)

The contradiction between a rhetorical commitment to freedom and governing attitudes and polices has created a chasm obvious from the regional if not the U.S. perspective. It is hard to see U.S. leaders closing it. They would have to withdraw the instruments of coercion and manipulation on which they have come to rely so heavily. They would have to set aside condescending attitudes and ethnocentric talk about an Arab world unable to come to terms with a dominant, dynamic liberal West. Most difficult of all, they would have to confront their own faith in freedom as a universal value whose triumph everywhere is inevitable and to ponder the possibility that diverse political cultures are a fact of global life, even those not cut to U.S. dimensions or responsive to U.S. preferences.

The historical record would suggest that these are steps almost unimaginable for a power jealous of its dominant position in the world and convinced of its global mission. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.