Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine

“America is solidly organized egoism, it is evil made systematic and regular.” Osama bin Laden? No, Pierre Buchez, a French socialist writing in the 1840s. Anti-Americanism goes back a long way. It was not born of American global domination—when Edmond de Goncourt wanted to express his horror at Baron Haussmann’s new Paris he observed that “it makes me think of some American Babylon of the future.” That was in 1860, when the US was still at best a regional power. Much has changed since then, though America is still seen in many quarters as the embodiment of rootlessness, disruption, cosmopolitanism: modernity, in short. But if the US is to make sense of its place in the world, if the present war is to have any beneficial long-term outcome, Americans need to make a sustained effort to understand what it is that so many millions of foreigners claim to dislike and fear about their country.

In the present mood, this subject elicits little serious discussion. Some on the left, whether in the US or Europe, have slipped comfortably back into familiar routines: peace vigils, teach-ins, and finger-pointing. The real problem, it sometimes seems, is not terrorists but the American government. “They” (George Bush, the Establishment) will use the crisis as an excuse to trample on our civil liberties—for Terry Eagleton, writing in the London Review of Books, the US is already “a one-party state.” And as for the horror of September 11, some just can’t help feeling that, as the historian Mary Beard put it, “however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.” Professor Thomas Laqueur of Berkeley writes that “on the scale of evil the New York bombings are sadly not so extraordinary and our government has been responsible for many that are probably worse.” Frederic Jameson of Duke University argues that “the Americans created bin Laden during the Cold War…. This is therefore a textbook example of dialectical reversal.” We devised the world’s problems—imperialism, exploitation, globalization—so we shouldn’t be surprised at the backlash.1

There is an ugly hubris in these lofty self-condemnations—as though all the world’s crimes and sins were just another American invention. In this view, if the US were not running amok in the world, projecting power and cruise missiles into Panama, the Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we would not now be suffering such terrible retribution. But American intervention in Kosovo, at least, saved the local (mostly Muslim) population from a catastrophe of genocidal proportions. In its foreign dealings, America typically does both harm and good.

But this nuance is lost on many domestic critics from the left; and as a result they are often at a loss to explain what has happened. As The Nation put it in a recent editorial, “Why the attacks took place is still unclear.” This view of the world mirrors that of its opponents on the isolationist right. The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center would never have happened, the logic runs, if we had minded our own business. What is wrong with (us) Americans? We’re overpaid, overarmed…and over there.

Among conventional politicians of the bipartisan middle, consensus takes a different form. Here the attacks on New York and Washington merely illustrate America’s distinctive virtues. “They” hate us not for what we do but for what we represent: pluralism, freedom, democracy, civilization. Even those who once argued for a more nuanced American engagement with the world—against the unilateralism of the Bush administration before September 11—now confine themselves to variations on a worn theme: realism.

The old realism insisted that the US put its “interests” first and last. The new realism demands that our foreign friends stand up and be counted—and willingly accepts for the time being that our enemies’ enemies be included in the census. And so we assemble a heterogeneous and fissile posse of Russians, Pakistanis, Syrians, Saudis, Ta-jiks, Uzbeks, and the rest—most of whom have at some point in the recent past been the object of American ire and condemnation for their mistreatment of civilians or their active support of murderous terrorists.

But if the war goes according to plan and we dismantle the Taliban and capture bin Laden, what becomes of this international coalition? We are unlikely to solicit its views on what to do with bin Laden, if we have him. And while the Northern Alliance will be helpful in a ground war against remaining Taliban forces, and Uzbekistan, like Turkey, can provide logistical help, our military need for outside assistance is limited—we have not even called on the French. As the fight against terrorism goes on, what shall we make of the terrorizing proclivities of our friends? Shall we undertake nation-building in Afghanistan? With the Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Northern Alliance? With the exiled king? Or with the “moderate” Taliban representatives, as Pakistan (many of whose citizens are Pashtuns, like the Taliban themselves) would much prefer? Shall we further commit ourselves to stabilizing and securing Pakistan? And eventually Syria and Iraq? Or shall we walk away and concentrate on “homeland protection”? And what will the world say of us, in any event?


Anyone who has lived or traveled away from the US knows something of the shape of contemporary anti-American sentiment. In the first place, it is driven by humiliation, the feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness shared by hundreds of millions in the Islamic world and elsewhere. In a world of easy communications, the wretched of the earth see and feel their abjectness reflected in their encounters with the guardians of prosperity. In itself, however, this is not about America. What ties this widespread sentiment of wounded pride to a certain image of America in particular is American “arrogance.”

This is the first of a number of themes masterfully exploited by Osama bin Laden in his televised interviews and speeches.2 For the US, in its foreign dealings, is often arrogant: it asserts a preemptive right to be where it chooses, to do as it sees fit, with scant attention to the consequences for others. Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, was asked on television, on October 11, about bin Laden’s reiterated obsession with the presence of US troops near Muslim holy places. Should we not pay attention to Muslim sensibilities in this matter? Armitage ignored the question—we’re there, he asserted, to protect Persian Gulf oil sites against the threat from Iraq and we are staying. If you even raise this issue, he warned the (American) interviewer, you are playing in bin Laden’s ballgame. His reply will doubtless be run and rerun on al-Jazeera television—it will make fine recruiting material for the next generation of terrorists.

All great powers are arrogant—it just so happens that America is the only one around. But America, as bin Laden and countless Arab (and European) editorials never tire of repeating, is also inconsistent—or, as they would say, hypocritical. Rhetorically committed to a moral universalism quite unlike the patronizing elitism of older imperial powers (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”), the US cannot help but come across as saying one thing and doing another; and it is perhaps unfortunate to be the only great power at a time when anyone in the world can scrutinize its every word. America switches overseas allegiances with disconcerting ease: now India, now Pakistan; now Iraq, now Iran. We embrace countries and then abandon them. Picking (and then dropping) one’s friends overseas for short-term advantage is the surest way to make enemies.

Even in the Muslim world, not everyone is a priori offended by American example and leadership. But they are wounded and scarred by Washington’s shifting treatment of them, with wild swings from engagement to indifference. It is in this respect that hard-nosed “realism” is its own worst enemy. Today we are at war with “rogue states” and terrorists, and now is not the moment, we are told, to pay overmuch attention to the fine print. But what is a “rogue state”? One that allows terrorists to raise cash and buy guns on its soil? What is a terrorist? Is an armed Kurd a freedom fighter in Iraq but a terrorist in Turkey? Was Iraq a rogue state when the US backed it against Iran? Were volunteers in al-Qaeda terrorists when they joined the US-financed war in Afghanistan?

These are not fixed terms with agreed meanings that last for long (witness the careers of Menachem Begin and Gerry Adams, among many others). To assert otherwise, as American leaders now do, to claim that terrorism is a moral given and you are either for it or against it, is imprudent. It is particularly imprudent for a country like the US to adapt its moral categories to immediate requirements, however urgent. We need Russian cooperation, to be sure. But Putin needs us, too, for many reasons. It should not be beyond our ingenuity to secure his support without consigning the Chechens to oblivion, or—worse—relabeling them terrorists just to please him. The less we say now, the fewer hostages we shall offer to hostile fortune.

You have only to read or hear Osama bin Laden at some length to understand how fluidly he plays off these matters. His own motives, if we take them at face value, are to push the “infidel” out of the Arabian peninsula, to punish the “Crusaders and the Jews,” and to wreak revenge on Americans for their domination of Islamic space.3 He is not a spokesman for the downtrodden, much less those who seek just solutions to real dilemmas—he is cuttingly dismissive of the UN: “Muslims should not appeal to these atheist, temporal regimes.” But he is adept in his appeal.


He makes much, for example, of the “feebleness and cowardice of the American soldier.” Americans are “unmanly”—and so, therefore, are those (notably the ruling Saudi family) who align with them or accept their protection. This allusion to US reluctance to accept casualties and Washington’s insistence on fighting wars from 15,000 feet up attracts a wide and sympathetic constituency, and not only among Arabs; for it tidily combines the themes of arrogance, hypocrisy, and pusillanimity while reminding his audience of terrorists’ own willingness to die for their cause. I don’t think Washington, or many American citizens, have taken the full measure of the propaganda price that America has paid for its manner of waging risk-free war.

And then there is Israel. It is disingenuous to suggest that the crisis in the Middle East is unconnected to bin Laden. In my reading of European and Near Eastern sentiment today, the Israel–Palestine conflict and America’s association with Israel are the greatest single source of contemporary anti-US sentiment, crossing political, ideological, and national boundaries. Osama bin Laden may not care one way or the other for the Palestinians, and he is certainly not interested in an agreed solution to their predicament; but when he says (as he did in December 1998) that “we must consider Israel the real perpetrator of any attack on any state in the Islamic world,” he strikes a deep chord.

Arabs and other Muslims from Rabat to Jakarta have watched Israel build settlements in occupied territory in defiance of UN resolutions and international law. They’ve been shown footage of the Israeli army destroying houses and land; they’ve heard Israeli leaders acknowledge state-sponsored assassination; they’ve noted the election of Ariel Sharon in spite of his shameful record in Lebanon; and they’ve seen the American president assure Israel of unwavering US support. When bin Laden claims that he is striking back for the Palestinians, too, he renders the Palestinian cause no service—but he doesn’t lose friends, either.

Is there anything the US can do about anti-Americanism? Actually, quite a lot. If Osama bin Laden is taken alive (and we had better hope that he is), he should be tried by an international tribunal. There is not yet an International Criminal Court (thanks in some measure to Washington’s refusal to countenance indictments against Americans…), but an ad hoc court for the purpose is one option. A trial in the US, however fair and open, would be imprudent. It would be widely perceived abroad as “victor’s justice.” Nuremberg was victors’ justice too, and set important precedents as well as punishing major criminals. But we forget too readily that in the aftermath of Nuremberg many Germans privately dismissed the verdicts (and therefore the charges against the Nazis) as imposed on them by force.4 It would be a catastrophic error were something comparable to flow from an American court’s verdict on the terrorists of September 11.

The US must also take its political case to the constituency that matters. In recent weeks Tony Blair has been giving interviews to Arab-language TV stations in an effort to convince his audience not just that we have no quarrel with Islam (pace bin Laden’s repeated claims), but that Osama bin Laden does not speak for anyone. What has the US done? Well, we complained to the Emir of Qatar that al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television station that has carried many of bin Laden’s statements and which has a huge popular audience in the Arab world, was providing terrorism with a platform and should be curtailed. The unelected Emir duly reminded the representatives of one of the world’s oldest democracies that a free press is essential to democratic life.5

Finally, the US needs thoroughly to reassess its relationship to the rest of the world. Those who hate us for our “values” (which in any case are Western, not American) are vastly outnumbered by those who resent us for our foreign policy. Our efforts to eradicate terrorism will go for nothing if we keep uncritical company for tactical ends with rulers who practice at home the very crimes we claim to abhor. The same goes for the actions of our friends. The policy Israel has been pursuing is “worse than a crime, it is a blunder,”6 and the US does neither itself nor Israel any favors by providing implicit cover for its policies toward the Palestinians. If Washington cannot prevent Israel from behaving in destructive and self-destructive ways, then it must at the very least distance itself from it. Sharon has doubtless helped this process along by his revealingly brutal outbursts since the atrocities of September 11.

The US should surely abandon the embarrassing practice of treating international agencies and agreements as foreign-policy “options” which it can cherrypick or neglect at its own convenience. The ingratiating alacrity with which Washington paid its back dues to the UN when it needed international help did not pass unnoticed overseas. Is this the beginning of a fresh approach, or just another hiccup in the history of America’s inattention to international affairs? It depends on how the Bush administration understands the importance of the choice facing it. In view of its starting point last January, this is not a suitable government for such a purpose; but it is the only government we have.

Whether President Bush and his advisers can find it in themselves to look long and hard at America’s past mistakes—at a time when, understandably enough, Americans are being exhorted to feel proudly patriotic—is not yet clear. Edward Said recently admonished Arabs for failing to denounce suicide missions and hiding instead behind the excuse of their own suffering; how many of us (he asked) have taken responsibility for the poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, and repression in our own societies, and the political manipulation of Islam, while complaining about Zionism and imperialism?7 It is a timely question, and no doubt an uncomfortable one, too. But we in the US should be asking un-comfortable questions of our own. The American political concentration span is famously short; and despite the atrocities and the anxieties, less may have changed here than people say—there will be a deep collective urge to get back to normal once the crisis has passed. That would be a grave mistake.

—October 18, 2001


“Our brothers who fought in Somalia saw wonders about the weakness, feebleness, and cowardliness of the US soldier…. We believe that we are men, Muslim men who must have the honour of defending [Mecca]. We do not want American women soldiers defending [it]…. The rulers in that region have been deprived of their manhood. And they think that the people are women. By God, Muslim women refuse to be defended by these American and Jewish prostitutes.”

Osama bin Laden, December 1998, from an interview with al-Jazeera television, reiterating bin Laden’s characteristic obsessions: American fearfulness, Saudi betrayal, Islamic machismo, and Jews.

This Issue

November 15, 2001