Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lee Smith, author of "The Strong Horse", on anti Americanism

The best interview I've ever seen about the Middle East: Michael Totten interviews Lee Smith. Smith is author of the newly released The Strong Horse.

Today, rather than highlighting Smith's brilliant views on the Middle East [which he explains during the first part of the interview], let's look at Smith's views on anti Americanism in the world - especially in the Middle East, in Europe, and amongst American Intelligentsia - and at Smith's views on America's (desperate and pitiful, imo) desire to be loved:

Lee Smith: ... And as for turning the region [the Middle East] against the US, we shouldn’t forget that a lot of people in the region cheered the [9/11] attacks. Our mutual friends and colleagues in Lebanon tell us that people were handing out baklawa in the streets of Beirut, nor of course was this the only Arab city where 9/11 was celebrated.

Michael Totten: On the subject of anti-Americanism, I think you nailed it, and it really isn't that complicated. You wrote,
"Anti-Americanism is the region's lingua franca, and from Nasser to Nasrallah it has not changed in over fifty years. The United States is hated not because of what it does, or because of what it is. The United States is hated for what it is not, not Arab and not Muslim."

Now, surely the fact that the U.S. plays a powerful role in the Middle East feeds into this. Like you said, it goes back to beginning of our presence in the region. If we had the geopolitical footprint of, say, Belize, hardly anyone in the Middle East would spend much time even thinking about us. But since we aren't going to shrink our footprint to the size of Belize or even Europe—not even with Barack Obama as president—is there really much we can do about this?

Greg's note:
I think Totten and Smith are slightly off: the Middle East hates America for

1) not being Arab
2) not being Muslim
3) being prosperous, powerful, influential, and happy.

In other words: they hate us for what we are not in combination with what we are. They hate us b/c of the entirety of the equation.

Lee Smith: The short answer is no. The long answer is also no—but I’ll elaborate anyway. Arab anti-Americanism, as I point out in the book, did not begin with the Bush administration, but goes back to the very beginning of our presence in the region and becomes the pre-eminent channel for anti-colonial sentiment after the Suez Crisis of 1956. The irony is that as President Eisenhower asserted the US’s anti-imperialist credentials and demanded that the French, British and Israelis withdraw from Egypt and leave Nasser alone. We had effectively ruined France and Great Britain’s position in the Middle East and it was not long before they left entirely—France left Algeria and Great Britain abandoned its position in the Persian Gulf. Hence, we were the only remaining Western power in the region and all the anti-colonialist sentiment was directed at us, even if our presence there has never resembled anything like that of a classical colonial power.

There is also a tribal element behind the anti-Americanism that I detail in the book, but it dovetails nicely with the once reigning anti-colonial sentiment articulated by the Arab nationalist intelligentsia, a theme encouraged at the time by our Cold War rivals in Moscow. Of course it was nonsense: Colonial powers extract wealth from their holdings for their own sake, as Syria did during its 15-year-long occupation of Lebanon; they don’t typically go in and produce wealth for the sake of the locals, like the Americans did in discovering oil in Saudi Arabia, marketing it, and protecting it and the Saudi Royal family for some 65 years at the expense of the American taxpayer. The money we’ve spent over the years protecting the Gulf, including the outlay for the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, dwarfs the figures we’ve provided Israel and Egypt, the two top US aid recipients.

Of course, neither facts nor precise language will have much effect on Arabs who hold anti-American positions, nor on Americans or other Westerners who have similar views, from a so-called leftwing perspective. The major concern then is with that portion of Americans who really affect how we interact with the world, not just US policymakers, but our opinion-makers, journalists, talking heads etc., and whether or not they understand the sources of anti-Americanism and the various political and strategic purposes to which it’s put. For instance, Hendrik Hertzberg recently wrote in the New Yorker that, “Obama damped down the flames of global anti-Americanism.” Maybe Mr. Hertzberg missed the footage from Pakistan when they were burning the effigy of the 44th President, just as they did with the 43rd President, but this New Yorker writer has no choice but to ignore reality because anything other than fulfillment of the wish that Obama will make us loved around the world, rather than hated, as ostensibly Bush did, is too terrifying to contemplate.

I think this need to loved is about two things. First, anti-Americanism, not just of the Arab variety but the entire genre, is very old, dating back to even before the founding of this country. Barry Rubin has a book on anti-Americanism where he goes into this: Europeans felt they had to justify to themselves why they weren’t coming to the new world, this new Jerusalem, this city on a hill, so they concocted a narrative, some of it based on sheer fantasy, imaginary beasts, etc., about why the new world, America, was a very bad and dangerous place that rationalized their decision to stay in Europe. That is to say, anti-Americanism is originally a European phenomenon: we rejected Europe by coming to these shores and they rejected us in turn. The Europeans have had problems with America, the idea and reality, for 300 hundred years and it’s not going away anytime soon. This is the well from which our prestige intelligentsia is drinking; a large portion of our elite is relieved to see America put down so long as they are not included among the great unwashed by the people who, for some good reasons, they admire and, for not such good reasons, whose love they desire: the Europeans. It’s a prestige thing for this section of our elite. They don’t hate America, they love it. They just want their version of it—urbane, often ironic, international—represented to that part of the rest of the world that’s of most concern to them: Europe.

Since the ideas of the world that this class of Americans holds—the junior-year abroad school of US foreign policy—are rooted in insecurity, fear, and what the French call ressentiment, they are not very clear ideas about the world, neither about the scary parts nor the relatively gentler regions, like France, for example. I love France, I love the French, I especially love their strategic posture: can you imagine, a nation so devoted to its historical character that it is still trying to project power even though it has neither the military nor the economy to do so? Some would say it’s the opposite of what Obama is trying to do with the US—turn what is in reality a great power into a middling power, like France. I deeply admire France’s aspirations, even as many of their policies are repugnant. The fact is that France is usually successful to the extent its calculations are cynical, which is characteristic of French foreign policy throughout the ages. The idea that France’s actions on the world stage embody some sort of moral authority is perverse, ahistorical, and anti-intellectual insofar as there is scant evidence in the written record of France ever acting in such a fashion; but there you have it, our prestige intelligentsia was outraged that Bush didn’t take his marching orders from the French President on Iraq.

The other reason we are so concerned with anti-Americanism is quite simply mortal fear—we want to be loved because it is scary to be hated by scary people who set fire to things when a cartoon offends them, and blow things up when they get really mad. To be sure, Americans seem to be needier than the inhabitants of any other great power in world history—did the Romans require love? The Ottomans? The Brits?—but the fact is that people really do hate us. Maybe they hate us for what seem like good reasons, at least to them anyway, maybe it is about our policies, for instance. But many Arab Sunnis hate Arab Shia for what seem like good reasons to many Arab Sunnis—they hate the way the Shia practice Islam; they hate Shia “policies” about Islam. So maybe if the Shia don’t want to get blown up by a madman like Zarqawi they should change their policies regarding Islam and become Sunnis. Of course it’s ridiculous, as is the notion that Bin Laden and friends want to kill us because of our “policies.” We support Israel, they say; but we also are allied with every Arab state except Syria. We support Arab regimes that tyrannize their own peoples, they say; and then we deposed Saddam and you saw how the Arab Sunni masses reacted. The issue is not our policies; the issue is an existential one, and it is not about us, rather it is about a society that makes no room for difference, or what is known in academic circles as “the other.” If Zarqawi becomes a folk hero for slaughtering Arab Shia, this is not a region where a non-Arab, non-Muslim superpower is going to find much love.

We are a Great Power, and while some Americans, including some of our policymakers, may say they are uncomfortable about it, we all benefit from our size and ability to project power, hard and soft, the latter of which is earned exclusively by the successful employment of the former. But power and wealth are always going to attract attention from dangerous characters; it earns us envy as well as respect and there’s not much you can do about it because this is part of human nature. We all know the apparent paradox about how big guys get into so many fights because little guys are looking to prove themselves. A wise club owner will hire small, quiet—and deadly—men to keep peace at his bar, but the USA is not a tavern, we are big whether we like it or not, and so we seek to shrink ourselves at our own peril.

I’d love to ask the President about the last fistfight he was in

Greg's note:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I'm confident President Obama has never been in a fistfight, ever - even as a child, much less as an adult. Not that I, as a rule, condone fistfights. But, rather, I just know what I know, and would be shocked if he has ever been in a fistfight.
If Pres. Obama had ever been in a fistfight, I actually would feel much better about him. It would mean he had - wisely or unwisely - come to a point where he said: That's it! No more. You've committed an act UP WITH WHICH I WILL NOT PUT! Then he threw down and began swinging. Even if the act up with which he would not put was his own face being pummeled: this would at least mean Barack Obama was willing to fight for something. Whether or not the fighting was wise, the more important revelation would have been that Pres. Obama had some strength; had some gravel in his belly; had some point at which he was willing to stop masquerading and start fighting. I would feel a lot better if I believed Pres. Obama had something up with which he would not put; had something he were willing to fight for. He appears to be an incredibly weak and feckless man.

—not as a macho, posturing thing, but just to find out what he thought in the aftermath, regardless of the outcome. Did he think, “what did I do to make that vicious drunk come after me? Maybe he was covetous of my iPhone? Maybe my date was dressed too provocatively?” Or did he think, “gee, that was scary as hell and it spun out of control real fast and I’m pretty lucky I was able to handle myself and my pals were there, and next time it might not be a wild haymaker I can see from a mile away but a crisp jab that catches me on the chin.” There are reckless and dangerous predators in the world; some of them pick fights in bars, some of them rule nation states, and others run planes into buildings.

In short, I think American foreign policy gets stupider the further it’s removed from our actual experience of the world. Surely before the President met and then successfully courted his beautiful wife, the First Lady, he struck out with other women, perhaps like most of us, many other women. The lesson that any half-sane adult American male draws from dating is that no matter how hard you try you can’t make people love you. Love is given by choice. By matching actions to words, you can earn respect, but you cannot coerce love, not from another human being, and certainly not from a foreign people.


Donna B. said...

I wonder why Smith assumes that Obama has been in a fistfight?

gcotharn said...

I suspect Smith assumes every boy gets into a fistfight at some point. A lot of men assume that about every other man. It's hard to get through boyhood - or maybe even high school - without it happening.

My cousin would come home crying after getting punched by a playmate. My aunt told him to never again come home crying unless he had punched back. My cousin again came home crying.

Aunt: Did you hit him back?
Cousin (snuffling): No.
Aunt: Why not!? I told you to hit him back!
Cousin: I tried, Mama, but I couldn't catch him!