Anti-Americanism’s Deep Roots

I took a step back from the issue before writing because I get a bit unreasonable over these kind of topics at times (see here and here). It’s difficult to remain reasonable at times when the country is under attack for various, often contradictory, reasons. Nevertheless, I shall try.

This is usually James’s bailiwick and I’m sure he’ll speak up if he wants, this being his site and all. I read Robert Kagan’s column every month and usually find myself nodding along. This month is no exception. He points out that “international legitimacy” has a value in and of itself, and I agree, as long as we are discussing normal times. That we have a horribly flawed institution through which this legitimacy flows is a topic for later.

Here, he participated in a panel with a group of people that are obviously not fond of the United States. In fact, they would probably blame us for the Plague if they could find a way to. From Kagan’s description, it sounds as if contradictions in their own statements regarding our posture allows us to be blamed when things go right or wrong, whether we do something or do nothing. Here’s Kagan:

Anti-Americanism’s Deep Roots
The interesting thing was that the Iraq war was far from the main topic. George W. Bush hardly came up. The panelists focused instead on a long list of grievances against the United States stretching back over six decades. There was much discussion of the “colonial legacy” and “neo-colonialism,” especially in the Middle East and Africa. And even though the colonies in question had been ruled by Europeans, panelists insisted that this colonial past was the source of most of the world’s resentment toward the United States. There was much criticism of American policy during the Cold War for imposing evil regimes, causing poverty and suffering throughout the world, and blocking national liberation movements as a service to oil companies and multinational corporations. When the moderator brought up nuclear weapons proliferation and Iran, the panelists talked about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


As for “failed states” and civil conflict, several panelists agreed that they were always and everywhere the fault of the United States. The African insisted that Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed by American military interventions, not by Slobodan Milosevic, and that Somalia was a failed state because of American policy. The Pakistani insisted the United States was to blame for Afghanistan’s descent into anarchy in the 1990s. The former guerrilla leader insisted that most if not all problems in the Western Hemisphere were the product of over a century of American imperialism.

Some of these charges had more merit than others, but even the moderator became exasperated by the general refusal to place any responsibility on the peoples and leaders of countries plagued by civil conflict. Yet the panelists held their ground. When someone pointed out that the young boys fighting in African tribal and ethnic wars could hardly be fighting against American “imperialism,” the African dictator’s son insisted they were indeed. When the head of the NGO paused from gnashing his teeth at American policy to suggest that perhaps the United States was not to blame for the genocide in Rwanda, the African dictator’s son argued that it was, because it had failed to intervene. The United States was to blame both for the suffering it caused and the suffering it did not alleviate.


There are two lessons to be drawn from all this. One is that in time the current tidal wave of anti-Americanism will ebb, just as in the past. Smarter American diplomacy can help, of course, as can success in places such as Iraq. But the other lesson is not to succumb to the illusion that America was beloved until the spring of 2003 and will be beloved again when George W. Bush leaves office. Some folks seem to believe that by returning to the policies of Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and John F. Kennedy, America will become popular around the world. I like those policies, too, but let’s not kid ourselves. They also sparked enormous resentment among millions of peoples in many countries, resentments that are now returning to the fore. The fact is, because America is the dominant power in the world, it will always attract criticism and be blamed both for what it does and what it does not do.

No one should lightly dismiss the current hostility toward the United States. International legitimacy matters. It is important in itself, and it affects others’ willingness to work with us. But neither should we be paralyzed by the unavoidable resentments that our power creates. If we refrained from action out of fear that others around the world would be angry with us, then we would never act. And count on it: They’d blame us for that, too.

Go ahead and read the whole thing.

My own theory about these resentments includes the fact that, yes, we have done some things that were hurtful, but generally when our choices weren’t good in any case. One instance is our interference in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. We were engaged in an existential struggle with communism and, as part of that struggle we opposed communist dictatorships and supported other types of dictatorships. It is clearly resented in Latin America, but I can’t say I would do things differently given what we were facing. The whole world was a chess board with us playing the Soviet Union in a series of proxy conflicts, at least in part because if we fought one another, the outcome would have been horrendous.

My other theory is that much of this comes from envy. Some of it is relatively benign, like French politicians using the U.S. as a whipping boy to get elected. I’m sure that stuff doesn’t go unnoticed, but most people understand that’s how politics works. The other things, like the African dictator’s son damning us for acting in one instance (Bosnia) and not in another (Rwanda) is simply throwing up things to see if they will stick. There is a market for this kind of nonsense in Europe and elsewhere, and given the detachment from reality and/or stupidity of the accusers, I’m not overly concerned with that either. We will be resented by someone no matter what we do simply because of our current place in the world.

One instance that demonstrates what we should do is the tsunami. We figured out the right thing to do, and we did it with the help of Japan and Australia. We had ships on the scene shortly after the catastrophe to help by flying people out of soaked areas, bringing fresh water and food to others and various other things. While we were doing this, to distract from their own incompetence, the UN had Jan Egeland complaining that we didn’t give enough of our GDP to international institutions. While they were having conferences about setting up more conferences, we were helping people. That’s how I believe we should handle these matters: Decide the right thing to do and do it; let others bicker over insignificant side issues. We should probably accept that no gratitude will be forthcoming when we do help. It’ll be another reason to criticize us later on.

We should help anyway.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. cian says:


    As someone who has admired America all my life and recognised the important part American activists have played in improving the world for all of us, I, like many other foreign supporters of your country, am finding it increasingly difficult to argue for the Bush Administration’s actions. In fact most of us have long since given up and instead point out that this administration does not represent a mayority of the American people, as all respected polls continue to show.

    The recent suicides at GITMO is a case in point. Whether it is has registered with average Americans, average Europeans are fully aware of the fact that the vast majority of those in GITMO were not picked up on the battle field. They were handed over to US forces by Afghan warlords for a bounty.

    For the Bush Administration and sections of your MSM to continue describing them as dangerous individuals bent on destroying America is so blatantly untrue it only emboldens your enemies by allowing them to point out your government’s dishonesty to moderate Muslims, and further alienates those who seek to explain your reasoning to those same moderates.

    Make no mistake, the vast majority of people outside the United States are fully behind you in your war against Al Qaeda (as opposed to the Iraq war), but because of the present administration and their tactics you are losing more than just this war, you are losing support, stature and friends.

  2. JKB says:

    I really don’t understand this obsession with the U.S. being unpopular. We are providing leadership to the rest of the world. Real leaders, who make hard decisions, not the “I feel your pain” type, are always resented. They make the hard choices others won’t. They deal with how the world is, not how they would like it to be. By dealing with reality, they are able to change the world.

    Most people got through life trying to be popular, but when confronted by someone who would do violence to you, would you rather be with someone who is affable and tries to get along or would you prefer someone who accepts the danger and takes decisive action to remove it?

  3. Anderson says:

    The panelists included the son of a famous African liberation-leader-turned-dictator, the former leader of a South American guerrilla group, a Pakistani journalist, a U.N. official and the head of a nongovernmental humanitarian organization.

    Well, that’s 2 of 5 right off who are unlikely to have anything useful or intelligent to say. The real news of Kagan’s column isn’t “America unpopular”; it’s “people with nothing better to do than appear on ‘panels’ are unlikely to merit attention.” Which includes Kagan, most of the time.

  4. Andy Vance says:

    One instance is our interference in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. We were engaged in an existential struggle with communism…

    Ah, the Disney version of the episode.

  5. Gadfly says:

    Yeah. My take on being covered here at Pariahs on Fy-uh

    The guy over at The Diplomad had the best quote from a Sri Lankan official. �Why should we worry about that? Everyone knows you Americans will take care of it.�
    Yeah. True. In the end, we�ll fix it somehow. We�ll get spit on for our trouble, but yeah, we�ll handle it.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    cian, you can quote myths till the cows come home that will not change facts. What evidence do you have that those imprisoned at Gitmo were not captured on a battlefield. How do you explain the return of those released to the battlefield. Where do you get your news, the daily Kos? As for the War in Iraq and the War on Terror. What do you think Saddam was? If question the Iraq adventure, you must be pro Saddam. Are you?

  7. Your post provoked a number of thoughts. See Back in the Day of Y2K

    Before 911 we still had reason to hold our heads up as “the good guys.” Now, I’m not so sure.

  8. Andy Vance says:

    What evidence do you have that those imprisoned at Gitmo were not captured on a battlefield.

    According to the Defense Department’s own numbers, only 5% of detainees were captured by U.S. forces. The rest were handed over by Afghan warlords or Pakistani bounty hunters acting on appeals like this.

    The criteria the DoD used in determining whether a prisoner qualified as an “enemy combatant” included:
    – Associations with unnamed and unidentified individuals and/or organizations
    – Associations with organizations, the members of which would be allowed into the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security
    – Possession of rifles
    – Use of a guest house
    – Possession of Casio watches
    – Wearing of olive drab clothing.

  9. Tano says:

    Seems to me like a nonsense article. The panelists were hardly representative of global opinion, so the panel is used as a easy strawman so that the author can spout whatever he has long intended to say, without the intervention of any intellegent challange. A waste of time.

  10. No, not a waste of time. There’s a Pew poll that largely verifies his point. Have you not been reading the news? Even the British press?

  11. cian says:


    I appreciate you taking the time to reply to my post. No, I am not a supporter of Saddam. I am however a supporter of the War against Al Qaeda and consider the invasion of Iraq as a serious mistake in that war. The enemy has grown stronger, bolder and more popular in the Middle East directly as a result of Bush’s actions. The forces ranged against the terrorists have grown weaker.

    The Bush Administration has spent billions and sacrificed thousands of American and Iraqi lives fighting a people that were no longer a credible threat. They have divided America and destroyed its deserved reputation as a proud, justice loving nation which stood for decades as a bulwark against the kind of actions it now perpetrates (torture, imprisonment without trial, spying on its own people).

    Al Qaeda always understood that to set the Middle East ablaze, they needed someone else to start the fire. The US invasion of Iraq is exactly what they hoped for.

  12. Wildmonk says:


    Your comments about “setting the Middle East ablaze” look like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    First, I know it is an article of faith among all decent thinking people in your circles that America’s opposition to Saddam has just created more terrorists. I see many people willing to make this assertion but very few that can back up the assertion with any real facts. Keep in mind that the objective isn’t to make the Iraqis love us – it is to ensure that Iraqi civil institutions grow stronger more quickly than the ranks of the nihilists and jihadists. Looking at the facts on the ground regarding the growth of the Iraqi army and police, it is very hard to conclude that we are failing in this long-term objective. And yet – the argument persists.

    Indeed, all available evidence indicates that the Jihadists are desperate for some evidence of real success. They can still kill, but do they really pose an existential threat to the Iraqi civil authorities any longer? It is pretty clear that they do not: the blood cult lives but cannot rule.

    Second, any effort this size will always produce horrible moral compromises – you simply cannot overthrow a thug-state like Iraq without horrendous bloodshed and loss of innocent life. Maturity and perspective demand that we acknowledge the difficulties but keep the long-term goal in mind. But you and others like you simply refuse to do that. What I don’t understand is the complete pass that you give to the blood-soaked nihilist while each and every transgression by America is endlessly picked over. Why do you shove these shortcomings in the face of the Arab world over and over and over again while asking “Aren’t you outraged yet?” Of course, you should expect them to grow angry when your press endlessly drones on about the American fascist hegemony.

    And the Jihadists – well that’s just legitimate resistance, right? The slaughter of children, the culture of death, the endless decapitations, the horrible flood of snuff films – all of it is terrible but, really, it’s just a legitimate cultural expression of resistance for you, isn’t it? After all, giving up and joining the Iraqi political process is absolutely unthinkable, isn’t it? Can’t have people giving into Yankee democratic capitalism, eh? I know you don’t really expect any more from these people when, after all, America may have a few innocent folks cooped up at Gitmo. Let the decapitations proceed!

    The point is that you either acknowledge that the root of terror lies in the political cancer endemic to the middle east – and thus must be solved there – or you should simply admit that you kind of admire the jihadists and think that their opposition is legitimate or, at the least, kind of romantic.

  13. Joe Gelman says:

    Excellent comments. My view is that anti-Americanism is a modern form of anti-Semitism. Irrational resentment and suspicion of those deemed more successful and powerful; A deep suspicion of what they donâ??t understand; Seeing a conspiracy in every corner; criticizing every move, what is done and what is not done.
    Joe Gelman

  14. cian says:


    Excellent post. You have given me a lot to digest and think about. I’m not sure what circle you imagine I represent and I’m sorry if I come across as some sort of American hating lefty. Naive yes, confused certainly, but I remain an admirer of America and the freedoms it has always stood for but is now in danger of abandoning.

    UK police believe absolutely that the war in Iraq has created and continues to create Al Qaeda supporting terrorists. They may be wrong in this assessment, but I doubt it.

    I think it is fair to say that the Taliban in Afghanistan were the political equivalent of the Al Qaeda network. No one would deny that they were blood cultists and yet in the anarchy that followed the withdrawal of Russian troops, they stepped in, and ruled, horribly. They may well do so again. The job was never finished.

    Keeping long term goals in mind is not something I find difficult to do. I think the point I was trying to make is that the Iraq war is the wrong goal if the right goal is defeating Al Qaeda. If for you the only goal worth keeping in mind is winning in Iraq, fine. But no one in the Bush administration seems to know what winning there means or how it will weaken Al Qaeda.

    And no, I don’t admire the Jihadists or think their opposition legitimate, but it is real, it will last and it is growing. The political cancer you speak of needed better diagnoses, a wiser more skillful surgeon and a different kind of treatment.

    My questioning of the direction the War on Terrorism has taken is not meant to be an attack on the American people, the majority of whom agree that the Iraqi war is a terrible mistake.