Palestinian protesters burn an American flag. Source: Flickr
The relationship between the United States of America and the Middle East is arguably one of the most hotly debated topics in modern history. The U.S. has always been quick to take action every time it has felt that its diplomatic or economic interests in the Middle East could be under threat. There is strong evidence to suggest that America’s military and diplomatic actions over the past decades have resulted in very strong anti-American sentiments in the region.
The situation has not, however, always been this way. In fact, there was a time when Arabs viewed America in a largely positive light. Michael Hudson describes the years following the end of World War I as “the age of innocence” in U.S.-Arab relations. According to Hudson, the King-Crane Commission, sent to the Middle East by President Wilson in 1919, found out that if Arabs could not gain independence, they would much rather be governed by America than by Britain or by France.
A closer look at France and Britain’s involvement in the political life of the Middle East after the end of World War I explains the positive perception of America in the region at that time. Having emerged as winners in their military confrontation with the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France governed their Middle Eastern possessions in a way that triggered strong anti-European sentiments among the Arabs.
According to Roger Owen, the invention of the mandate as a form of administration, which sought to legitimise French and British presence in the Middle East, was met with great discontent by Arab populations and resulted in numerous revolts. What is more, the British and French placed great emphasis on police and security, leading therefore to a lack of public expenditure on important sectors such as public health or education. In addition, they resorted to an alliance with large landowners, a conservative social force that would create a pro-colonial sentiment by ensuring rural security. The effect of this endeavour was, however, undermined by the “divide and rule” practice of emphasising ethnic and tribal divisions between the different groups.
As a result of such actions, Europeans were associated with selfishness and duplicity. By comparison, Americans seemed like good people, untainted by the negative traits that characterised the Europeans. As Middle Eastern nationalist and religious movements reorganised themselves in order to combat European imperialism in the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. conversely was spared their anger.
The emergence of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world came about as a consequence of American interventionism. Michael Hudson provides detailed evidence about how the perception of the United States in the Middle East began to deteriorate as American involvement in Middle Eastern affairs became more pronounced, from 1945 onwards. In the Cold War years, Americans feared that potential Soviet control over Middle Eastern oil resources would be detrimental to the economy of the free world. The U.S. therefore attempted to form a number of military alliances with Middle Eastern regimes, which, however, had the effect of inducing strong anti-American feelings in the region, rather than of increasing security. Moreover, U.S. support for Israel set American foreign policy at odds with the nationalist movements in various Arab states and caused further anti-American sentiments among the Arab public. Even nowadays American support for Israel remains too sensitive a problem to allow a healthy relationship between the U.S. and the Arab world to develop.
In the early 1990s, U.S.-driven condemnation of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the sanctions imposed on Iraq reinforced hostility towards America in Arab public opinion. Furthermore, America’s War on Terror and the atrocities committed in its name resulted in the tarnishing of America’s image and reputation, not only in the Arab world, but also on a global level.
America’s war on terror — reason for resentment? Source: Wikimedia Commons
America’s influence in international affairs is a hotly debated topic the world over, as the country’s foreign policy is arguably the most controversial in the world arena. Murtaza Hussain argues that negative perceptions of the United States are not exclusive to the Middle East. Regions that have at some point been at war with America, or simply affected by U.S. military interventionism, such as Korea or Latin America, are still home to strong anti-American sentiments.
Be this as it may, negative perceptions of America today are nonetheless most prevalent in countries of the Middle East. According to statistical findings by the Pew Research Centre, the countries with the most unfavourable view of the United States over the past decade are all Middle Eastern. It is noteworthy that even during the recent protests over Morsi’s ousting in Egypt, both pro-Morsi Islamists and the anti-Morsi Rebel group blamed the U.S. for the mayhem, with each accusing the U.S. of supporting the other.
At present, world news is dominated by the devastating crisis in Syria, where fighting between the Assad regime and its opponents has resulted in a death toll of thousands. If President Obama’s response to the emergency will improve the perception of America in the Middle East or cause it to deteriorate further remains to be seen. The world will be watching with great interest.