We often hear people complain that America‘s reputation has taken a hit in the last few years, with most of the blame going to former President Bush and his administration. Putting aside the challenging task of measuring what that actually means when translated into real world consequences, it is worthwhile to look at trends that follow such talk. When the US has a “negative” reputation abroad, we typically see the populations of our Western European friends (France, Germany, Britain) staging protests against us. Additionally, unfriendly dictators (like those in Iran, Venezuela and North Korea) see the opportunity to ramp up their rhetoric, blaming the US for many of their failed domestic and foreign policies.
Rarely does the attention fall on the other interested parties though. The governments of our allies are usually split in their support for our actions (perhaps with Britain, Italy, Australia and Japan supporting us while France, Germany and Spain oppose us). And the US typically receives silent support from the populations of those dictators who consistently condemn us. For example, the Iranian people generally have a very positive view of the US when we appear to be standing up to their government. The same can be said of many other repressed regimes whose populations are rarely heard from.
This discussion is particularly relevant now because our “flailing international reputation” is frequently referenced as a reason for needing change in Washington. At least rhetorically, we seem to be witnessing a major shift from the idealist approach of the early Bush Administration that gave us the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. (Many in the IR field would agree, the last two years of the Bush Administration took a very realpolitik approach in their interactions with North Korea and Iran).
Yesterday, President Obama conducted his first interview with a Middle East television station, Al Arabiya, indicating his intent to return to the days of realist policy in the Middle East. While the mood of the American people appear ready to embrace such a strategy, it’s worth discussing at what price this change will come and who will most benefit. Clearly, the American people view it as saving us money now desperately needed at home. It will also save lives of American military men and women. But what about those people living under a despotic regime in the Middle East? Will they be better off now that the US is no longer offering to help take on evil dictators and spread democracy? Now that the US is going to sit down with their repressive governments and smooth things over so business deals flow and dictators’ “sovereignty” is protected?
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami discusses this transition and poignantly captures the irony of the change in policy and its political voices:
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” President Barack Obama said in his inaugural. But in truth, the new way forward is a return to realpolitik and business as usual in America‘s encounter with that Greater Middle East. As the president told Al-Arabiya television Monday, he wants a return to “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago….
The irony now is obvious: George W. Bush as a force for emancipation in Muslim lands, and Barack Hussein Obama as a messenger of the old, settled ways. Thus the “parochial” man takes abroad a message that Muslims and Arabs did not have tyranny in their DNA, and the man with Muslim and Kenyan and Indonesian fragments in his very life and identity is signaling an acceptance of the established order.”
Perhaps another reason this is so ironic is that 30 years ago it was the idealist/”human rights” campaign that pressed Jimmy Carter to drop US support for dictators like the Shah of Iran. Of course, this prompted the Shah’s quick departure and the Iranian Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini. Based on these results, it’s not surprising that the idealist approach was discredited.
This time around however, it appears the idealist theory (backed by force) has been much more effective. In his piece, Ajami explains why this might be the case:
“Say what you will about the style — and practice — of the Bush years, the autocracies were on notice for the first five or six years of George. W. Bush’s presidency. America had toppled Taliban rule and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein; it had frightened the Libyan ruler that a similar fate lay in store for him. It was not sweet persuasion that drove Syria out of Lebanon in 2005. That dominion of plunder and terror was given up under duress…
The argument that liberty springs from within and can’t be given to distant peoples is more flawed than meets the eye. In the sweep of modern history, the fortunes of liberty have been dependent on the will of the dominant power — or powers — in the order of states. The late Samuel P. Huntington made this point with telling detail. In 15 of the 29 democratic countries in 1970, democratic regimes were midwifed by foreign rule or had come into being right after independence from foreign occupation.
In the ebb and flow of liberty, power always mattered, and liberty needed the protection of great powers. The appeal of the pamphlets of Mill and Locke and Paine relied on the guns of Pax Britannica, and on the might of America when British power gave way. In this vein, the assertive diplomacy of George W. Bush had given heart to Muslims long in the grip of tyrannies.
Take that image of Saddam Hussein, flushed out of his spider hole some five years ago: Americans may have edited it out of their memory, but it shall endure for a long time in Arab consciousness. Rulers can be toppled and brought to account. No wonder the neighboring dictatorships bristled at the sight of that capture, and at his execution three years later.”
For the repressed peoples of the Middle East, we can only hope the protests of Parisians are a better signal of failed policy than they appear to be.