America the Omnipotent

[NOTE: a shorter version of this commentary was published in The National on August 11, 2013]

Anti-Americanism isn’t just a ubiquitous feature of contemporary Arab political culture. It arises from a deeper, more insidious and ingrained concept: the myth of American omnipotence. Thus the will of the United States becomes the default explanation for everything that happens in the Middle East, particularly when people don’t like it.

Anti-Americanism follows the same logical distortions, but applied in reverse, of the other great omnipotent power: God. Among the devout, God gets all the credit for everything good that happens, but none of the blame. If large numbers of children are fortuitously saved from disaster, God saved them. If they tragically die, no one ever applies the inescapable logical inverse: God killed them. God is omnipotent and omniscient, but is utterly exempted from blame for anything the faithful find bad, and only gets credit for the good.

America the omnipotent occupies the opposite position in the moral economy of contemporary Arab political thought: it’s always blamed for whatever people don’t like, but never gets the credit for anything perceived as good.

Recent events in Egypt are only the most striking and current demonstrations of this very long-standing pattern.

Supporters of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi are convinced the United States was directly responsible for his ouster. His opponents, perhaps even more ferociously, believe the Americans put him in power and wanted to keep him there. The most bizarre theories, from both sides, about various supposed conspiracies hatched by US Ambassador Anne Patterson abound in the Egyptian media. The only thing Egyptians now agree on is whatever it is they don’t like, it must be the fault of the United States.

The same applies in Syria.

Last year I was on an Arabic TV debate with three Syrians. The first, a Salafist, said the Americans wanted to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power at the behest of Israel, because they feared the “Islamic Awakening.” The second, a nationalist, insisted that the US indeed wanted Assad to stay in power, because he had cooperative relations with Israel. The third, a regime stooge, insisted on an American plot to overthrow Assad because he was the leader of “resistance” against Israel.

But how did the United States become this “great Satan,” for which all bad things can be, and are, blamed by all Arab sides, all the time?

The problem is clearly overdetermined. Like western Islamophobia, it feeds on centuries of ancient rivalry between Dar al Islam and Christendom. Arabs feel, and for good reason, mistreated by the colonial West. Decades of nationalistic, religious, xenophobic and chauvinistic propaganda entrenched anti-American narratives in 20th-century Arab political culture. And since the 1950s the United States has been the primary regional power in the Middle East and acted like it, with all the local resentment that naturally entails.

But the underlying, latent theme actually seems to be a profound sense of unrequited love. Why is America so inexplicably biased towards Israel? Why are their policies always so unfair? Since American is omnipotent, and bad things keep happening, why does the US do them?

Yet while Arabs rail against the United States, they love its culture and products. They fight for visas, and to send their children to American universities. Even Islamists like Morsi studied and taught in California.

Arab sensibilities about international relations are defined by a profound sense of disempowerment, especially as contrasted with an illusion of American omnipotence. These fantasies feed each other in a neurotic vicious circle.

Even as American influence around the world is palpably waning, absurdities — such as the idea that the recent abdication of the Emir of Qatar was, for some reason, “ordered” by Washington — are a commonplace.

How radically different things look from DC, where a new and uncharacteristic sense of helplessness has taken root in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, the Afghan failure and the fiscal calamity.

Washington looks at Syria and most incorrectly conclude there are no effective or useful policy options. The United States thinks that it has virtually no influence in Egypt, even less than it really might. Even in its most familiar territory, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, American policymakers are not coy about saying they feel at the mercy of the domestic politics and policy caprices of Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

The new American feeling of impotence, or at least risk-aversion, is as exaggerated as Arab delusions about American omnipotence. There is much the United States can do to help its friends in the Arab world, if only it would. But there is a persistent, crippling reticence to support those who share American goals or values, particularly if they are not fully trusted by Israel.

Arab anti-Americanism rests on two pillars: disillusionment and perceived betrayal by an ideal, combined with a wild overestimation of American power. Arabs therefore oscillate between yearning for American leadership and resenting its clout.

Contrast the ubiquitous, and normatively negative, Arab sentiments towards the United States with an almost total disinterest in the role of Russia. Yet if there is an external power up to no good in the Middle East, it is Russia. Its wholehearted support for the Syrian dictatorship helped kill at least 100,000 people in the past two years.

But there is no unrequited love affair with Russia. No sense of betrayal. No feeling of an abandoned ideal or love-hate neurosis. That Russia does what’s in its interests is simply accepted with a shrug. The dearth of conspiracy theories about the Kremlin’s machinations — especially compared to the plethora of bizarre fantasies attributed to the White House — reveals Arab anti-Americanism to be a collective neurotic symptom, fundamentally disconnected from reality.

Of course anti-Americanism is consciously and cynically abused in much Arab political rhetoric. It’s too easy a tool of manipulation for unscrupulous demagogues to pass up. And it works, all too often and all too well. Indeed, it’s so pervasive and visceral that it most closely resembles the rage of a jilted lover.