Center for Strategic Communication

The persistence of anti-American views in the Arab world represents an important policy challenge and an intriguing puzzle for political scientists. In the new issue of Foreign Affairs, I use Amaney Jamal’s fascinating new book, Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy At All?, to explore a range of competing arguments about Arab views of the United States (many thanks to the Foreign Affairs team for temporarily ungating the essay). As I argue in the introductory paragraphs, "even major changes, such as Bush’s departure,
Obama’s support for some of the Arab revolts of 2011, the death of Osama
bin Laden, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, have had surprisingly
little effect on Arab attitudes toward the United States." Why? Does it matter?

Jamal’s book offers a sophisticated answer focused on the domestic coalitional politics of authoritarian regimes allied with the United States. Drawing on both survey evidence and extensive interviews in Jordan and Kuwait, she traces the ways in which that alliance has distinctive distributional effects which may do more to explain why certain groups end up expressing pro-American and others anti-American views. The analysis suffers from some flaws, which I dissect in the essay, but it’s an interesting analysis which poses a real challenge to prevailing theoretical explanations.

The big question which the essay seeks to engage, and to which neither Jamal nor I offer any conclusive answers, is whether and how Washington could realistically change the direction, salience, or intensity of views of the United States. The ambivalent, conflicted response to changes in U.S. policies from Egypt and Iraq to Libya and Syria show that it isn’t as simple as "change unpopular policies." Nor am I persuaded by the invocations of the region supposedly yearning for American leadership which tend to be popular in Washington, if nowhere else.

In truth, none of the dominant theories really strike me as convincing, nor do many of the popular policy arguments about public diplomacy seem useful. In the essay, I point back to the arguments about cognitive bias in an influential book edited by Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane as one possible angle. I also think that antipathy to the U.S. is only intensified by the trends toward political polarization, more open public argument, resistance to change by U.S.-allied regimes, confusion about U.S. intention and capability to continue to underwrite the status quo, and the deep political uncertainty everywhere in the region. There are surely other explanations. 

In another piece which just came out, Colin Kahl and I argue that the U.S. needs to do much more to engage with this emergent public opinion. Because of the Arab uprisings, public opinion matters more than ever before in the region, even if it isn’t and shouldn’t be the only consideration for the formation of policy. But understanding that public opinion and how the U.S. can effectively engage with it has never been more difficult. We try to lay out a grand strategy for the region which protects U.S. interests, "right-sizes" America’s military and political presence, and responds more effectively to this potent but divided new public.

I encourage you to go read both essays, so kindly made available by Foreign Affairs and by The Washington Quarterly.  These are really interesting challenges, which I don’t pretend to be able to resolve conclusively — the perfect combination for a roundtable if there’s enough interest! 

P.S. —  I wish I could claim credit for "Pity the Feloul", but that was all the FA editorial team!