What They Think of US: International Perceptions of America's War on Terror

Holger Löwendorf and Katherine Scott
Ph.D. students, Department of History

The debate over the United States’ War on Terror is seldom enlightened by voices outside the Pentagon or Beltway. Frustrated by this process, international scholars have long sought to inform U.S. policymakers of the international perceptions of America’s role in the world. On March 24, the Society of Fellows at Temple University hosted a panel of renowned international intellectuals who offered a national and regional perspective of the United States, the policies of the current administration, and its War on Terror. Representing predominately Islamic nations, these scholars were particularly welcome to comment on a variety of topics.

Moderated by Petra Goedde and David Farber, both Professors of History at Temple University, the discussion included Iraqi native Dr. Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Post-Doctoral Fellow at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey; Dr. Melani Budianta, Professor of Literature, Cultural Studies, and American Studies at the University of Indonesia; Dr. Nur Bilge Criss, Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Turkey; and Dr. Federico Romero, Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Geography at the University of Florence, Italy.

Panelists set the tone for the conference by describing the collective horror over the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While the regions they represented overwhelmingly demonstrated sympathy for the United States and initially supported retaliation against the terrorist networks in Afghanistan, panelists agreed that the Bush administration quickly squandered that support with unilateral actions, overly belligerent rhetoric, and a simplistic world-view.

Speaking for their respective regions, the panelists argued that, in the context of the Cold War, the United States exercised almost uncontested moral leadership. In order to stem the tide of communism, American policymakers established an international network of alliances and security regimes such as NATO and SEATO. The panelists also discussed the cultural aspects of this history, largely based on their personal experiences. Growing up during the Cold War, exposure to American culture came in many forms, from Coca-Cola to the United States Information Agency (USIA). In addition, their positive perceptions of U.S. culture and society were shaped by their academic experiences in the United States.

The world, as represented by the panelists, expected that the United States would respond militarily to the terrorist attacks. But as the focus of the Bush administration shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s regime, America failed to take advantage of the networks it had created during the Cold War. The panel did not interpret the War on Terror as a departure from past behavior. Neither military action nor the conceptual framework (i.e., the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty) were unprecedented. However, the notion of fighting terror through conventional warfare, according to the panelists, is highly flawed. As they understand it, wars are fought between nation-states, whereas the enemy in this case is organized in supranational networks. As the Turkish case has shown, it takes more than an army to combat terrorism. Furthermore, the panelists agreed that the Bush administration’s framing of the War on Terror as a discourse on civilization was a mistake. In Islamic countries, the “crusade” rhetoric alienated moderates while strengthening Saddam’s position in the Middle East as the champion of Islam versus the West.

While lauding U.S. efforts to foster the growth of democracy in the Middle East, the panelists concluded that American policymakers failed to recognize that the War on Terror has led to contestations over the merits of democracy in secular Islamic states. In these countries, the notion of democracy is not taken for granted; it rests on cultural context and cannot be imposed extraneously. Two cases illuminate this lack of cultural understanding. By underestimating the centrality of tribal culture in Iraqi civil society, the United States turned potential allies into enemies, further fueling anti-American resistance. Second, the Bush administration interpreted the Iraqi elections of January 2005 as a successful first step in implementing democracy, whereas the Iraqis used them to demonstrate their sympathies for anti-American parties. After all, the Shiites remembered the broken promises of 1991.

Cultural insensitivity also played a prominent role in American efforts to achieve gender equality in Islamic societies. In post-Saddam Iraq, women gained personal freedoms, but lost the ability to exercise them due to the declining security situation and the behavior of radicalized Islamists. The United States also interfered with women’s movements in Indonesia and Turkey, where it did not coordinate its actions with indigenous groups. The American “one-size-fits-all” approach to gender equality did not leave local groups with sufficient room to develop alternative strategies. Thus, the discrepancy between shared goals and diverging methods actually has the potential to undermine gender equality by triggering a backlash among moderates.

The Israel-Palestine conflict also figures prominently in global perceptions of the War on Terror. Above all, the panelists agreed, U.S. sympathies for Israel carry strong symbolic value beyond the Middle East. Besides the obvious effect of alienating Iraqis, Islamic nations interpret American political and military support for Israel as inherently anti-Islamic.

In addition to these overarching themes, the panel discussed some recent developments that provided the opportunity to improve global perceptions of the War on Terror. First, President Bush’s reelection precluded a fundamental change in policy. Due to the rather undefined objectives of the War on Terror, all panelists voiced fear that even minor strategic successes will lead to further interventions in the Middle East, e.g. in Syria and Iran. At the same time, the tenuous first steps towards democratization disturb the global anti-war movement, which is predicated on U.S. failure in Iraq. Other American attempts to mollify world-wide criticism are seen as insufficient: tsunami aid in Indonesia, for example, was welcome, but may in itself not be enough to change negative perceptions in this volatile region. How effectively the U.S. manages the Abu-Ghraib prison scandal and torture allegations will also ameliorate global opposition to American interventionism.

This leads to the question of what drives current U.S. foreign policy. Are we witnessing the last gasps of the American empire? Is the War on Terror a war for oil? The panelists did not reach a consensus on these questions, but put forth an even more consequential proposition. Because the ultimate goal of the Bush administration is the eradication of global terrorism and Al Qaeda’s endgame is the collapse of the United States, there could be a new systemic, and potentially perpetual, conflict fueled by moral absolutes.

Where do we go from here? The panelists noticed some positive changes: President Bush’s more nuanced rhetoric and cautious attempts to seek cooperation with other nations correspond to European desires to play a larger role in the War on Terror. Thus far, Europe cannot restrain the United States or offer meaningful alternatives to American hegemony, but continues to look for a way to influence U.S. foreign policy. The panelists also voiced pessimism about the role of the United Nations. In an age of unipolarity, this institution cannot foster global dialogue and has been reduced to a stage for dissent. Furthermore, the panel criticized popular American media outlets, such as CNN and Fox News, claiming that they have lost their appeal as reliable sources of information. Subsequently, the Internet has become an increasingly relevant alternative to obtain unbiased reports on U.S. actions.

As valuable as the insights offered during the discussion were, events like this will have little impact unless its participants can formulate an agenda for change. Panelists made several suggestions to this effect. First, they stressed the importance of personal connections among like-minded individuals to develop mass-based pressure on policymakers. Second, the capacity of U.S. intellectuals to criticize their own country needs to be resuscitated, because academia is separated from public discourse and in danger of becoming irrelevant. Third, any solution should be based on dialogue at the geopolitical level, which also requires power sharing in international organizations. Finally, and this may be the most pragmatic suggestion thus far, the U.S. would be able to regain credibility if it enlisted the help of cultural brokers in secular Islamic countries as well as in the trans-Atlantic community. The four panelists might be willing candidates for such a constructive role.