Repairing America's image abroad

By Jim Hoagland Published:

By Jim Hoagland

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to lower tensions between the Muslim world and the West, British Prime Minister Tony Blair maintained the other day that the world confronts a clash about civilizations not a clash of civilizations. But the overriding lesson of events since Sept. 11, 2001, may be that you cant have one without the other.

In radical Islamic propaganda, The United States has graduated from being a mere Great Satan out to undermine Irans ayatollahs to being depicted as a global monster responsible for virtually every crime and failing committed since the dawn of modern history. Meet the new Jews: the Americans.

Dont misunderstand. Americans have not replaced Jews at the top of the hate parade in Islamic countries. But the history of anti-Semitism, a word coined in Germany to provide a bogus scientific basis for prejudice against Jews, and its spread in recent years across the Middle East as an all-purpose explanation of whatever is wrong, should give Americans no cause for complacency.

The centrality of American power to global change -- good and bad, economic and political, topsy and turvy -- inevitably carries with it a heavy burden abroad of resentment and opposition. In the wake of 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a widespread stereotyping and a visceral hatred that imputes racial characteristics to national policies and actions have also taken hold.

The distemper of these global times can be read in a wide variety of settings, where this new virulent anti-Americanism competes with historic anti-Semitism as a single explanation for the failures and delusions of entire nations.

The change can be seen in Turkish and Egyptian movie houses, where overflow crowds watch depictions of Americans routinely raping, killing, firebombing mosques and torturing innocents as a function of national character. It flows through the fanatical statements of Osama bin Laden and others that conflate Jews and Crusaders. It peeks out of an overjoyed online announcement I came across last week that Hitlers favorite book, The Riddle of the Jews Success, is back in print.

Nothing new in this, it can be said. Besides, American movies, comics, journalists and politicians among others have never hesitated to stereotype Arabs, Turks or any other foreigners for their purposes and often in extremely crude terms. Finally, the terrible polarizing effect of the conflict in Iraq and the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere do invite harsh criticism of Americans rooted not in animus but in a sense of justice.

But the central and intrusive role of the United States in unleashing the traumatic changes of globalization on families, workplaces and nations everywhere brings unintended consequences. The forces that created anti-Semitism are not confined to one group of people or one moment in history.

The Jew is in every respect the center of the language of the Third Reich, indeed of its whole view of the epoch, literary scholar Viktor Klemperer wrote in his Nazi-era diary. A forthcoming book quotes that passage to explain how long-standing prejudice was mobilized as engine and rationale for mass murder and state terrorism in Germany.

Anti-Semitism was not only a set of prejudices and hatreds but also an explanatory framework for historical events, Jeffrey Herf writes in The Jewish Enemy. He demonstrates that while Hitler was convincing Germans that the Jews were about to annihilate them, the numbers and influence of Jews in Germany was sharply declining. Facts did not get in Hitlers way.

A vehement counterideology is developing across the Arab world today to President Bushs drive to put America even more at the center of democratic change and material progress in that region. Some of the push-back is reasoned and pragmatic; much of it veers into hate propaganda that confounds nationality with race.

That suggests two initial propositions for an ongoing discussion of this vast subject:

The Bush administration must avoid throwing gasoline on this raging fire by making assertive declarations about pre-emptive warfare, or Gods gifts of democracy being distributed to Arabs by Americans, or the like. It must show that misbehavior or crimes in Iraq or elsewhere will be punished up to the highest level of responsibility.

Secondly, Americans need to recognize that the problems we face in the Middle East are bigger than the failings or mistakes of Bush & Co. Those problems would not fade quickly if U.S. troops left Iraq tomorrow. Repairing Americas image at home and abroad is also a complex, generational task that begins now.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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