For a people who want to be loved as much as Americans do, these are trying times. People around the world see our troubles in Iraq and say we had it coming. They hear us talk about Arab democracy and think we're trying to steal their oil. Some even take a kind of perverse satisfaction in seeing us battered by monster hurricanes.
Other great nations throughout history have done a better job of being disliked. The British during their days of empire treated the rest of the world with a cool imperial disdain. The French under Charles de Gaulle regarded haughtiness as a national virtue. The Russians were brutally indifferent, the Chinese politely so. All these powers in their moments of greatness treated the rest of the world as quasi-barbarians. If they were hated in return, so what?
Indifference is not an American trait. Part of our Benjamin Franklin heritage of industry and self-improvement is that we want to be admired, applauded -- and, yes, loved. When we discover that we are in fact deeply unpopular in many parts of the world, we think we must have a communications problem. So the call goes out for Karen Hughes and the public diplomacy specialists.
I've had a lesson in our unpopularity in Egypt, where I've been hearing anti-American broadsides from activists who should be thanking the Bush administration for its pro-democracy stance. These are people who, but for the administration's pressure over the past few years on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, might well be in prison. But do they appreciate President Bush's help? Not on your life.
Take the pro-democracy speech in June by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She told an audience at the American University in Cairo that the administration was breaking with a 60-year-old policy that "pursued stability at the expense of democracy" and choosing instead to support democratic activists even when they challenged pro-U.S. rulers such as Mubarak. But the Egyptians remained dubious, to put it mildly.
"The United States doesn't want freedom for Arab people," insisted Ali Abdel Fatah, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. When I asked him about Rice's speech, he said America wanted democracy only as an "artistic decoration," because truly free elections would threaten Israeli and American interests. A similar sentiment was expressed by Amin Soliman Eskander, a co-founder of the pro-democracy group Kifaya. "I don't find U.S. policies credible," he said when I asked him about Rice's speech. As for American help, he said no thanks. "If the U.S. supported Kifaya, we would lose credibility on the Egyptian street."
Another leading democracy activist, Hisham Kassem, said he warned the secretary of state when she was in Egypt not to expect any bouquets. "I told Rice your administration is the most unpopular ever in the Arab world and will remain so until Bush leaves office." He thinks that this anti-Americanism is unfair and that Arab historians will eventually realize the importance of Bush's pro-democracy policies. But not anytime soon.
The Bush administration might do better in this part of the world if it accepted its unpopularity, rather than trying to wish it otherwise. That's especially true in Iraq. Most Iraqis were profoundly grateful that the United States toppled Saddam Hussein in April 2003, but that doesn't mean they like being occupied. The antibodies against the American presence are just too strong. The average Iraqi experiences U.S. occupation as a daily humiliation.
The potency of this anti-Americanism means, among other things, that we can't solve our problems in Iraq by sending in more troops. A bigger U.S. footprint would only increase Iraqi anger and fuel the insurgency. In contrast, fewer American troops may actually make it easier to stabilize the country, if the United States can help the Iraqis create a strong military and government of their own. America may be having trouble defeating Abu Musab Zarqawi, but the Iraqis won't. The moment they forge a real national government that draws together Sunnis and Shiites, Zarqawi is a dead man.
Realists are always quoting Machiavelli's admonition that it is better to be feared than loved, but that advice never seems to resonate very well with American presidents. They want to be feared and loved. Perhaps under our system, politicians become addicted to love. But in a world where we are the only superpower, the reality is that we will be unpopular. Nobody is going to root for Goliath -- even a nice, democratic Goliath.
An uncharitable world expects America to act in its own interests, and so we should. We promote democracy and anti-terrorism not because these are universal ideals, but because they serve America's need for a more stable world. We will never convince the rest of the world that we aren't acting selfishly, no matter what we say.