In July, in the course of writing a column about Libya, I spoke by telephone with U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, then in Tripoli. Libyans had just gone to the polls to elect a National Assembly, and he was feeling optimistic. The moderate National Forces Alliance had defeated an Islamist coalition, and the Islamists had accepted their defeat. The country was still in the grip of militias, but Stevens said that the security situation was "not bad," and getting better. "The Libyan public attitude to the U.S. is quite positive," Stevens said. "This is a great opportunity for us."
I cannot help wondering, in the wake of Stevens' murder by a mob in Benghazi -- where he had spent months working with the transitional council that served as the political wing of the forces fighting Muammar al-Qaddafi -- if I should understand his optimism about the U.S. role in Libya as a ghastly irony. How many times have I heard American diplomats talk about what the United States was doing or could do or should do, in Egypt and Pakistan and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world to improve its image? Americans are optimistic by nature, and so are American diplomats. I am, too: I incline toward hopefulness, though perhaps by now experience should have taught me otherwise. At the time, I wrote, "Libyans are generally well disposed towards the United States thanks to the Obama administration's role in the NATO bombing."
From his very first day in office, when he gave an interview to Al-Arabiya and called Arab leaders, President Barack Obama has tried to make gestures, and shape policy, that would change the feelings of people in the Islamic world toward the United States. He delivered his celebrated speech in Cairo in June 2009 in the hopes that by offering a new posture based on "mutual interest and mutual respect" he could end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" governing U.S. relations with Arab publics. Obama's speech sparked a wave of euphoria -- and then, as it became clear that he had offered a new tone of voice but not a new policy on the Palestinian Territories, or on America's autocratic allies, a new wave of disappointment. A third of respondents in Muslim countries viewed Obama positively in 2009; now a quarter do.
So much effort has gone into the campaign to pull the United States from the ditch into which it had sunk in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. The late envoy Richard Holbrooke insisted that U.S. aid to flood-ravaged Pakistan carry the Stars and Stripes in order to ensure that Washington got the credit it deserved among Pakistani citizens. But billions in civilian and military assistance have had the opposite effect. Since 2009, the fraction of Pakistanis who view the United States as an enemy has risen from 64 to 74 percent.
President George W. Bush tried to win Arab publics through democracy promotion; Obama, through deference and respect. Bush made things far worse, but Obama didn't make them much better. Perhaps it's not their fault. Resentment of the United States -- of which the most toxic form is the rage which fuelled the crowds in Libya and Egypt, and before that in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- serves political and psychological purposes that make it very hard to uproot. Blaming the West, and above all the United States, allows leaders to distract attention from their own failings, ordinary citizens to live with their sense of humiliation, and Islamist and anti-Western parties and factions to burnish their "resistance" credentials. Of course, if that's true, then nothing the United States does matters -- not even using force to help the Libyan people free themselves from their hated dictator, or sending an experienced and dedicated diplomat to prepare the rebels for the burden of governance. Libya is the test case for the belief that Washington can change the way it is seen in the Middle East by doing the right thing.