What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
Describing America’s image in Israel is a fairly simple task. For Israel, America is an ally (in fact if not by treaty), the ultimate guarantor of its survival, a major supporter, a model and the home of the world’s other large Jewish community. Predicated on this reality is a profoundly positive image, though one marred at the edges by a measure of criticism and chronic anxiety.
But this image is, to put it mildly, the exception in the region of which Israel forms a part. Indeed, Israel’s very presence in the Middle East and America’s support of Israel form an important dimension of America’s “image problem” in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds—which is not to say that America’s difficulties with Arab and Muslim opinion are merely a product of its support for Israel.
Like everything else, the trilateral relationship between America, Israel and the rest of the Middle East has a history, and an interesting one at that. Israeli society’s current view of America took time to develop. The state’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, was quick to identify the shift of power from London to Washington and made an early investment in the construction of a Zionist base of support across the Atlantic. He was rewarded by American support for the establishment of Israel. But Ben-Gurion himself and the Israeli public at large were acutely aware of America’s ambivalence. Most of the American foreign policy establishment opposed Israel’s founding and sought to redress it by forcing major Israeli concessions that would mollify Arab opinion. George Marshall, Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, three secretaries of state who were icons of America’s position in the world in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, were not seen as friends by the beleaguered new state.
This ambivalent view of America was compounded by other factors. There was a strong left-wing bias in Israeli opinion and politics at the time, which gave rise to much criticism of America’s foreign policy and its economic system. Russia (though not the Soviet Union) was an important source of the Israeli ethos. Culture was seen in central and east European terms; Anton Chekhov and Thomas Mann resonated more than Upton Sinclair and William Faulkner. America was remote, distant and not easily accessible. The French-Israeli alliance loomed far larger in Israel’s mind. True, France was a declining, middling power, but to a small, isolated and besieged state, French weapon systems and sympathy seemed far more attractive than the cold blandishments of Eisenhower and Dulles.
Both reality and perception began to change in the 1960s. Washington failed to woo radical Arab nationalists away from the Soviet Union and realized that its Middle Eastern allies in the Cold War were Israel and the conservative Arab regimes. American support for Israel became more palpable: economic aid, political and diplomatic support and, in 1962, the first decision to provide Israel with a major weapons system (Hawk anti-aircraft missiles).
Israel’s view of America as its great friend and protector was reinforced by two other developments: increased Soviet hostility and France’s “betrayal” in the mid-1960s with De Gaulle’s calculated shift to a pro-Arab policy. The Left’s gradual decline in Israeli politics and ideology, greater exposure to American culture and academic life, and easier access to the American continent also expedited the change. The sense of Israeli closeness to America also acquired two additional dimensions: the role played in Israeli life by the increasingly powerful, flourishing American Jewish community, and the emergence of a significant community of Israeli expatriates in the United States.
The Six Day War in June 1967 was in many respects a watershed. Israel felt more powerful and secure. The U.S. soon became Israel’s chief source of weapons systems and the generous donor of a large annual aid package. Diplomatically, Washington protected Israel from a campaign launched by the bulk of the international community to force a withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 without a peace settlement. Israel began to view the international system as a gauntlet of dangers—Arab hostility, Islamic enmity, Soviet animosity, European fickleness—relieved only by one loyal and steadfast friend, the United States.
But how reliable was Washington? Successive U.S. presidents and administrations starting with Lyndon Johnson stated their support for Israel, but not for its “conquests.” In return for a peace settlement (in fact less than that), Israel was expected to give up practically all the territories it captured in June 1967. And as Israel’s attachment to these territories grew, a new term arose: lahatz Americai (“American pressure”). Israel’s one friend in the world could, and at times did, exert pressure in order to force Israel to make territorial and other concessions to actual and prospective Arab partners once a peace process began. This complex reality produced the decidedly mixed Israeli opinions of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Carter wanted Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories and cajoled both Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, but ended up playing a major role in Israel’s peacemaking with Egypt that made him quite popular in Israel. Bush and his Administration were perceived by most Israelis as unfriendly despite the fact that they defeated Saddam Hussein and launched the peace process of the 1990s, one more accomodating to Israel’s strategic interests.
The theme of “U.S. pressure” was practically put to rest in 1992 with Rabin’s re-election as prime minister and Israel’s application of the principle of “territories for peace” to the Palestinian issue. If Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and eventually Ariel Sharon were all willing to withdraw from parts of “the land of Israel” and actually took the initiative in this matter, Washington did not have to “pressure” Israel in order to move a peace process forward. America’s role as the facilitator of Arab-Israeli peacemaking could be exercised quite smoothly, and a new basis was laid for the reality and perception of unique collaboration and intimacy.
The transition from Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration to the Republican administration of George W. Bush had a surprisingly limited impact on America’s popular image in Israel. The Israeli public is preoccupied with national security issues and tends to view larger international issues through this rather narrow lens. Trends and changes in American politics and policies are judged primarily by their impact on U.S.-Israeli relations and U.S. policy in the Middle East. If Europeans were exercised by President Bush’s position on the Kyoto Protocol, Israelis carefully monitored his relationship with the House of SaÔud. This traditional tendency was reinforced by the depth of the Israeli national security crisis of 2000Ð04, which was shaped by the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of the second intifada.
These very developments, and even more so the “war on terror” and the decision to go to war in Iraq, played a major role in drawing George W. Bush close to Israel and to Ariel Sharon’s government, contrary to most earlier expectations. And so the notion of America as a bastion of support, a true friend and now one who shared some of the same enemies was imprinted even more deeply in Israel’s collective psyche.
Informed opinion in Israel, as distinct from the popular variety, has a more nuanced view of Bush’s America. Its conservative domestic policy, the high-handed tone of its foreign policy and the simplistic nature of much of its Middle Eastern agenda do not go down easily. And Israelis are of two minds regarding the importance of fundamentalist Christian support for Israel in the Bush Administration’s outlook. Israelis appreciate the significance of this massive non-Jewish segment of the U.S. population, but wonder about the depth and stability of its support.
Beyond politics, the trends of 1960s Israel (essentially uncritical acceptance of the American model and its influence) were amplified by several developments, including the arrival of television, the predominance of English as a second language, and the expansion of U.S.-Israeli economic ties through Wall Street and Silicon Valley. There has been criticism of Israeli philo-Americanism, and interestingly enough it has come from both ends of the political spectrum. But it is not a criticism that carries much weight.
America’s image in the rest of the Middle East has traveled a starkly different route. The beginning was auspicious: America had no colonial past in the region, and had played a marginal role there until World War II. Immediately thereafter, America sought the role of an anti-colonial power, one that eased the British and French out of the region. But in short order, the United States discovered that, by displacing the old European powers amid a burgeoning Cold War, it inherited not only their imperial role but also the mantle of the West. “The West” is an elusive term. Germany is very much a Western country, but in the Middle East of the 1930s it appeared as an anti-Western force. In Chechnya today, Russia is cast as a Western oppressor of Muslims, but in the Middle East of the 1950s and 1960s, its example was hailed as an anti-Western road to modernization. It was during these decades that America became for many Arabs and other Muslims the epitome of the Western challenge to their pride, their way of life and the authenticity of their culture.
The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of pan-Arab nationalism, as represented by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the BaÔath Party. The radical aspect of this movement identified an unholy trinity of enemies obstructing the Arab nation’s journey to unity, reform, power and dignity: “Imperialism, Reaction and Zionism.” “Imperialism” referred to the Western powers, primarily to the United States, while “Reaction” was the term applied to the conservative Arab regimes. “Zionism” speaks for itself.
Pan-Arabism declined in the mid-1970s, to be replaced in practice by preoccupations within each Arab state. The ideological void was filled primarily by a variety of Islamist ideologies, and Islamist hostility to America is now far more profound than secular nationalist enmity ever was. To a radical Muslim, America is much more than a political antagonist; it is the source of a corrupting, corrosive influence that threatens the very fabric of Islamic society. It transforms into the archetypal land of evil, secularism, materialism, hedonism and immoral capitalism.
This scathingly negative Muslim view of America has been one strand, albeit an important one, in the web of images, attitudes and interests that have shaped America’s relationship with the Middle East during the past three decades. The Iranian Revolution, the hostage crisis, the ill-fated military intervention in Lebanon, American-Muslim collaboration in Afghanistan, and Washington’s community of interests with the house of SaÔud add up to an incongruous patchwork.
The impact of radical Muslim hostility to America has been amplified by the absence of a resonant, clear and confident liberal voice in most Muslim lands. American pop culture and material influence are prevalent in large parts of the Arab world but they are appreciated apologetically, divorced from a coherent articulation, let alone adoption, of an underlying system of values. Satellite television and the Internet have brought a media revolution in the Middle East. But if in Eastern Europe a similar development had contributed to the collapse of communism, in the Middle East the new media seem to be dominated by new Nasserite and radical Muslim motifs. Al-Jazeera is an egregious manifestation of the trend.
Al-Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington and the Bush Administration’s counterattack—the declaration of the “war on terror” and the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq—pit America against radical Islam in an unprecedented manner. They have also exacerbated America’s image problem with Arab and Muslim opinion. It is interesting but idle to speculate about what impact other aspects of the Bush Administration—the muscular approach to foreign policy or the neoconservative crusade for Western-style democracy—would have had in the Middle East without the “war on terror.” In any event, the war in Iraq, the manner in which it had been prepared and explained, and the lingering occupation, has become the single most important irritant in the American relationship with Arabs and Muslims, surpassing U.S. support for Israel in salience.
Most significantly, America is now perceived as an occupying power in the Arab world. Its military presence in the Arabian peninsula was cited by al-Qaeda as one of the principal justifications for September 11. A massive, lengthy occupation in Iraq is likely to have a far more profound and long lasting impact, to say nothing of political confrontation and potential military conflict with Iran. Even should a future American government have the luck and the skill to make major progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace, it will not offset the image-busting impact of U.S. engagement with Iraq and Iran in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The American image in Israel may wax or wane, but whichever is the case, it will be no simple reflection of the American image in the rest of the region.