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August 4, 2004

They're Offended by the Offensive


by Juan Cole

A sound bite from President Bush on Monday strikes me as emblematic of the country's current crisis. He said, "It is a ridiculous notion to assert that, because the United States is on the offensive, more people want to hurt us," he said. "We're on the offensive because people do want to hurt us."

Let me try to help Mr. Bush with this problem. The number of persons in the Muslim world who wanted to inflict direct damage on the U.S. homeland in 2000 was tiny. Even within al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri's theory of "hitting the distant enemy before the near" (i.e., striking the U.S. rather than Egypt or Saudi Arabia) was controversial.

The Muslim world was largely sympathetic to the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. Iranians held candlelight vigils, and governments and newspapers condemned terrorism. Bush's unprovoked attack on Iraq, however, turned people against the U.S. The brutal, selfish, exploitative occupation, the vicious siege of Fallujah, the tank battles in front of the shrine of Ali, a vicar of the Prophet, Abu Ghraib, and other public relations disasters have done their work.

The U.S. was not always universally despised in the Middle East. In some countries, large majorities thought well of the U.S.! Lawrence Pintak notes:

"The latest survey results out of the Middle East show that America's favorability rating is now, essentially, zero. That's down from as high as 75 percent in some Muslim countries just four years ago."

Al-Ahram explains further:

"In the first poll, which surveyed six Arab nations and was commissioned by the Washington-based Arab American Institute (AAI), the overall approval ratings of the U.S. ranged between an unprecedented low of two per cent in Egypt and a high of 20 per cent in Lebanon. Those holding a favorable view of the U.S. in Saudi Arabia were four per cent, 11 per cent in Morocco, 14 per cent in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and 15 per cent in Jordan. That marked a relatively sharp decline compared to a similar poll held by AAI two years ago, and indicated that the main reason behind the fall was the policies of the present U.S. administration led by George W. Bush."

The respondents in the poll did not dislike the U.S. because of values like freedom and democracy. Middle Easterners have even more faith in democracy than do Americans. They dislike the U.S. because of its policies. According to the recent Zogby poll [pdf], they had three main concerns: The U.S.-supported persecution of the Palestinians, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and U.S. plans to dominate and humiliate Arabs in general. It is policies that they hate, and want changed, not U.S. values.

So, Mr. Bush, that is how America "being on the offense" can in fact inspire hatred of the U.S. Your premise is simply incorrect. In some Middle Eastern countries, the U.S. favorability rating was as high as 75% in the last year of the Clinton administration. They didn't start off necessarily disliking the U.S. Even after the Afghanistan war, a third of Jordanians thought well of the U.S. Now almost no one anywhere does. These changes in attitude (which greatly benefit al-Qaeda) are mostly the result of your war on, and occupation of, Iraq.

All this is not to factor in the vast fall in prestige and esteem for the U.S. among European publics, our most steadfast allies for half a century. That you do not understand that being unnecessarily and arrogantly "on the offensive" is offensive to the rest of the world and actually hurts U.S. security is extremely worrying.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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