Americans: facing the world and facing ourselves

By Lawrence Davidson * | Sabbah Report | | July 19, 2011

Facing the world

It was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who, in a poem in 1786, wrote: “O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us, it would from many a blunder free us.”

That gift is now ours in the form of modern polling technology but, alas, Burns underestimated our abilities to turn a blind eye to its revelations and continue our blundering ways. Here is a recent example.

The respected polling company Zogby International recently conducted one of its periodic “Arab Attitudes” polls measuring, among other things, the popularity of the United States in the Arab Middle East. This one was conducted between the middle of May and the middle of June 2011 and involved 4,000 face-to-face interviews in six countries: Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The results are not pretty. As reported by Al-Jazeera, “The United States’ popularity in the Arab world has plummeted to levels lower than the last year of the George W. Bush administration.” The best the US and the Obama administration could do was a 23 per cent approval rating in Lebanon. In Egypt the approval rating was but 5 per cent, which constituted a 30 per cent fall from the last survey two years ago.

For those paying attention to US foreign policy in the Middle East, the reason for this awful performance is not difficult to understand. James Zogby got it right when he attributed the results to “disappointment in the failure to meet the high expectations created by Obama’s election in 2008”. He continues: “Those expectations appeared to rise further after Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, where he pledged to seek a ‘new beginning’ between the US and the Muslim world and expressed particular sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.” The speech led most Arabs to expect rapid improvement in the two areas they consider the “greatest obstacles to peace and security in the Middle East”: the continuing [Israeli] occupation of Palestinian lands and US interference in the Arab countries”. Both came up again and again in the poll as continuing problems with the Palestinian issue by far number one. As Shibley Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion” points out, “US foreign policy is evaluated through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict“. Obviously, Barack Obama has not come through on this issue.

Why did Obama fail? Whatever his initial intentions, Obama has learned that being president of the United States does not always involve looking after the national interest. Instead, it often involves seeing to the interests of (in his case) the Democratic Party machine and its politician constituents. If he does not do that he gets no cooperation in Congress and therefore, in terms of legislation, cannot carry forward an agenda. This arrangement demands the president’s cooperation with the various lobbies to which politicians have tied themselves. Most of these are domestic and reference the economic stability of the states and districts that congress persons and senators represent.

But there are also powerful lobbies in the area of foreign policy and their influence allows them to skew policy formulation away from any objective national interest toward the fulfillment of their particular parochial interests. Just think about our policy toward Cuba for the past 50 some years. In terms of the Middle East, the Zionist lobby surely commands the political field. And that means that, ultimately, it commands Obama too.

Thus, in American politics, when it comes to knowing how others see you, there is a priority order. The lobbyists are often at the top of that list. So, domestic polls telling the president how the Zionists (Jewish and Christian) see his Middle East policy trumps polls telling him how the Arabs see it. As a result it is almost impossible for American leaders to face reality about the outside world in those cases where foreign policy is at the mercy of domestic lobbies.

Facing ourselves

On the gateway leading up to the ancient Greek sanctuary on the island of Delphi was inscribed the saying, “Know Thyself”. The sanctuary was actually a temple to the god Apollo and in the temple lived the Delphic oracle. It was believed that the god would, through the medium of the oracle, answer questions about the future. But those answers were often qualified and quite enigmatic. To properly understand them one had to start by paying attention to the advice at the gate – by knowing thyself.

If America’s political system can make it difficult to face foreign realities, it can also sometimes make it equally difficult to face domestic realities. And that is because the people in Washington often go to great lengths to deny what they do and how that shapes who they are. They refuse to know themselves.

Take for instance the question of Washington’s sanctioned use of torture. On 11 July 2011 Human Rights Watch released an 107-page report, “Getting away with torture“, documenting “overwhelming evidence of torture by the Bush administration” and the subsequent failure of the Obama administration to “meet US obligations under the Convention Against Torture to investigate acts of torture and other ill treatment of detainees”. The report notes that despite the “legal obligation to investigate these crimes”, President Obama has treated them as “unfortunate policy choices”. What investigations have been conducted by the administration have been purposefully designed not to address “the systematic nature of the abuses”. For instance, in August 2009 the US Justice Department undertook an investigation which restricted itself to “unauthorized acts” of torture during the so-called war on terror. In other words, it looked into only those alleged acts that the Bush White House had not authorized. The implication here is that the only torture incidents the Obama people are interested in are the unofficial acts of isolated, lower echelon individuals.

 President Obama’s motives in doing this are pedestrian at best. He doesn’t want to focus on the past but rather on the future. As Human Rights Watch notes, Obama’s decision to “end abusive interrogation practices” during his own tenure in office “will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is clearly established”. So much for the president’s concern for the future. He also seems to want to protect those who were “just following orders”. Just as significant, Obama may want to maintain maximum flexibility of action for future administrations. In other words, he may think it prudent to make sure future officials can commit the same crimes as those of the recent past.

These decisions, both of the Bush and Obama administrations, are the “know thyself” clues to the nature of American leadership that almost no one in the US government wants to face. Almost no one, but not quite.

Back in June 2005 US Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat – Illinois) got up on the Senate floor and spoke about an FBI report describing the “detainees at the naval base in Cuba as being chained to the floor without food or water in extreme temperatures”. He then said the following to his colleagues:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners under their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime … that had no concern for human beings.

There was an immediate demand that Durbin apologize for insulting the country and its servicemen who were fighting so hard to “overcome evil regimes and spread democracy around the world”. Much to his credit, Durbin refused to apologize, yet his steadfast honesty was and is the exception and not the rule.


Most Americans either do not care what their officials and agents do abroad, do not believe it when the horror stories leak out, or rationalize them away as the unavoidable consequences of the “war on terror”. Therefore, in the end, they neither see themselves as others see them nor look honestly into their own faces. And so they are led to collectively act in self-destructive ways. This is the case despite the fact that age-old guideposts to relatively right action have been staked out for us by poets and oracles.

In the end, one can not help but share President Dwight Eisenhower’s anxiety as he worried about just “how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?

* Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University. He is the author of numerous books, including Islamic Fundamentalism and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: