Jonathan Aylward: Why they hate us

By Jonathan Aylward, Columnist
Published June 19, 2011

It’s no secret that Middle Eastern opinion of the United States is incredibly negative. A recent Pew Research Center poll of various Muslim nations found that in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and Palestine, approximately 15 percent of people viewed the U.S. favorably. During the Bush Jr. presidency, the question was often asked, “Why do they hate us?” We were quick to claim that they must hate our freedom.

The truth isn’t too hard to see, and it isn’t pretty either. That’s probably why we’ve clung to our simplistic cliché, avoiding the less self-affirming truth. One of the primary reasons for this abundant anti-American attitude is actually much different than the aforementioned Bushism. Though we have labeled ourselves champions of democracy and human rights, by blindly pursuing our economic interests in the region, we actually help limit the access to freedom for entire nations.

About a month ago, in a speech responding to the events of the Arab Spring, President Obama asserted his commitment to the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East. He boldly proclaimed, “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” After a long history of strong economic and political relationships with dictators, this was an incredibly weighty declaration. Not surprisingly, it has already proven to be a largely empty statement.

Let's pretend that Obama’s speech has created a new paradigm in U.S. foreign policy. In the past we acted with economic interests in mind, and it was unimportant whether a nation’s government was democratic or promoted human rights. However, according to the speech, the U.S.’s interests now depend on a shift to the promotion of democracy and human rights. Consequently, in the time since the speech, we would expect to have seen a monumental change in our relations to a number of regimes.

After gently chastising Yemen and Bahrain (two close economic and political allies) in his speech for their prolonged brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters, Obama has done little to demonstrate that we are serious about adhering to our new ideals. Just as with Egypt and Mubarak, the U.S. maintained support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh up until the point when it was obvious that he was on his way out. Two weeks ago, while hosting the Bahraini Crown Prince, Obama pledged enthusiastic U.S. support and failed to acknowledge the ongoing violent government crackdowns.

The clearest indicator that the United States will continue to act out of self-interest, and not out of concern for democracy and human rights, is our relationship with Saudi Arabia. An Islamic monarchy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia prohibits free speech and political parties, disallows women from driving and only allows them to travel with the permission of their closest male relative. It considers death an appropriate punishment for homosexuality and actively censors the Internet. Yet Saudi Arabia is one of our closest allies in the region. If this seems incongruent, there’s one more important fact to consider: They are the number one exporter of oil in the world. Clearly democracy and human rights, let alone stopping the societal conditions that breed terrorists, can be put on the backburner if you have enough oil for sale. It’s no coincidence that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Despite Obama’s lofty assertion, it’s clear that we still actively support regimes that repress democracy and human rights in the Middle East. This simple fact goes a long way in explaining the question we’ve been asking since 9/11: “Why do they hate us?” Anti-American sentiment will continue to grow as the gap widens between what we say we represent and what we actually represent.

As the democratic fervor of the Arab Spring lingers on, we are faced with two paths: we can truly embrace the ideals of democracy and human rights with our actions, or we can continue to simply talk about them. One choice garners the support of the masses, one further exacerbates our current dilemma. As people in the Middle East continue to reject dictators and implement democracies more representative of public sentiment, the United States’ popularity will shift from a mere statistic with little consequence, to the unpleasant political reality of decreased trade opportunities and an increasingly isolated role in the world.

Jonathan can be reached at jaylward@umich.edu.