Missing Links

The Perils of Lite Anti-Americanism

Why knee-jerk criticism of the United States carries dangerous hidden costs.

There is murderous anti-Americanism, and then there is anti-Americanism lite. The first is the anti-Americanism of fanatical terrorists who hate the United States — its power, its values, and its policies — and are willing to kill and to die in order to hurt the United States and its citizens. The second is the anti-Americanism of those in the United States and abroad who take to the streets and the media to rant against the country but do not seek its destruction.

Both lite anti-Americans and U.S. policymakers share the illusion that anti-Americanism that falls short of terrorism carries few concrete costs. Lite anti-Americans will tell you that they love the United States but despise its policies and that criticizing its government is indeed healthy. They are, of course, correct that in some cases the global pushback against U.S. initiatives may help inhibit the unilateral excesses, mistakes, and double standards of a superpower often driven by narrow calculations rooted in domestic politics. It is thus simplistically wrong to equate the worldwide protests against U.S. policy toward Iraq with anti-Americanism. Indeed, accusing critics of President George W. Bush’s policies of being anti-Americans — lite or otherwise — is as mistaken as branding critics of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies anti-Semites. Both accusations often simply aim to stifle what is a desirable debate in any democracy.

But lite anti-Americans are equally wrong when they assume there is no cost to their broad denunciations, especially when strident attacks against U.S. policy help stoke far deeper and more pervasive animosities and suspicions against the United States, its government, and its people. Unfortunately, it has become all too easy for those who disagree with specific U.S. policies to believe and disseminate the worst possible assumptions about the malicious nature, dark motivations, and hidden agendas of the United States — including horrible falsehoods. Witness, for example, the global popularity of L’Effroyable Imposture (The Horrifying Fraud), a book originally published in France with foreign rights sold in 16 countries, which argues that right wingers inside the U.S. government staged the attacks on September 11, 2001, and that a jetliner never crashed into the Pentagon that day.

Those who partake and spread lite anti-Americanism, even while sharing the principles and values the United States stands for, undermine the country’s ability to defend such principles abroad. After all, international influence requires power, but it also depends on legitimacy. Such legitimacy flows from the acceptance of others who not only allow but even welcome the use of that influence. Maybe U.S. legitimacy abroad was undermined by Bush’s threats to act alone in Iraq and to impose the will of his administration on others. But such actions were interpreted by much of the world through the lens of deep suspicions about the United States that predate Bush’s presidency. Ultimately, the automatic rejection by lite anti-Americans of U.S. international actions may be as bad for the world as giving the superpower a blank check to exert its power without the constraints imposed by the international community. For example, in NATO’s deliberations in February over how best to protect Turkey in the event of war with Iraq, the instinctive reactions stoked by lite anti-Americanism surely helped to undermine and perhaps permanently alter the NATO alliance.

Moreover, the stridency of today’s global anti-American chorus also undermines the support of the American people for their country’s international engagement. Active U.S. engagement may not always be the best recipe for international problems, but it often is the only one available. Many Americans already have a hard time understanding why they should bear the burden of being the world’s sheriff and receive no respect in return. Indeed, the lite anti-Americanism that prevails in many countries helped by the United States may eventually boost the fortunes of American isolationists by making such understanding impossible.

But such perilous carelessness is not only the province of lite anti-Americans. U.S. politicians and government leaders have long been disdainful and careless about the ill effects of lite anti-Americanism. Among Washington heavies, the common wisdom is that murderous, fanatical anti-Americans cannot be swayed and must be dealt with by security and law-enforcement agencies, while the faddish actions of lite anti-Americans are largely inconsequential.

Several months ago, a bipartisan group of U.S. foreign policy experts outside the government met to discuss their concern about the growing tide of anti-Americanism worldwide. The group eventually drafted a private letter to Bush urging him to do something about it. The cabinet member they asked to deliver the letter responded that it would not have much impact unless it spelled out the concrete costs of anti-Americanism. The effort obviously produced no tangible results. The Bush White House has continued and deepened the tradition of acting as if the McDonald’s-eating, Nike-clad street protesters who denounce the United States need not be taken too seriously.

On the other hand, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, can clearly spell out the costs of the lite anti-Americanism that pervades their societies. Lite anti-Americanism has raised the domestic political stakes of their support for Bush, who in turn will soon realize that for all his tough talk, acting alone entails huge costs and risks. Yes, the United States can invade Iraq without the blessing of the United Nations. But its military needs bases in other countries, its counterterrorist agencies need the help of other intelligence services (even those of France), its financial regulators need to work closely with regulators abroad, and its nation builders in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, need the help and the money of other countries.

The United States will soon rediscover that it depends as much on the goodwill of other governments as it does on the lethal efficacy of its military to achieve its international goals. In turn, that goodwill depends heavily on the mood and attitudes of domestic constituencies at home and around the globe. That is why the worldwide ascendancy of lite anti-Americanism is a dangerous trend. And not only for Americans.

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