Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a commentator on religion for National Public Radio.
Restrained praise is in order for the BBC’s Radio 4 series on anti-Americanism called “Death to America.” The brainchild of senior Washington correspondent Justin Webb, the three-part program examined the hatreds toward America that are bubbling over in France, Venezuela, Egypt and beyond. “A pattern was emerging and has never seriously been altered,” Webb said of his experience of anti-Americanism in Europe. “A pattern of willingness to condemn America for the tiniest indiscretion—or to magnify those indiscretions—while leaving the murderers, dictators, and thieves who run other nations oddly untouched.”
It was this realization, he said, that launched him into the series, which aired three consecutive weeks last month. Any regular consumer of the BBC, if he’s honest, must admit that Webb’s simple insight is rarely if ever heard across the BBC’s media colossus. It took guts for Webb to approach his superiors about the program concept, and a refreshing measure of fairness for the BBC’s top brass to sign off on it.
The program is not without its flaws. Its promotional plug, for example, promises to question “the common perception” of the United States as “an international bully” and a “modern day imperial power.” It’s still debatable how common that perception is outside of the elite dining halls of London, Paris, Geneva and Brussels. (The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French President — unashamedly pro-American — contributes to that debate.)
Take the Venezuela segment. America’s foreign policy record in Latin America is problematic, to be sure. But one also wonders about the wisdom of offering Venezuela—under the corrupt and demagogic rule of Hugo Chavez—as representative of attitudes in the region. In the segment on Egypt, we’re reminded of a rather startling statement from Condoleezza Rice in 2005: “For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” she said. “Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all.”
After playing the clip for a leader of Egypt’s opposition party, Webb delivered this question: “Do you believe the promise of America will come good, or do you feel they’ve betrayed you?” The question itself invites scrutiny: Do America’s critics expect the United States to topple the government in Egypt? In the two short years since Rice made her confession about the failure of U.S. foreign policy, does it amount to a “betrayal” that Jeffersonian democracy has not yet arrived in Cairo?
Nevertheless, the BBC offered some unedited footage rarely seen on its network. Hallah Mustafa, member of Egypt’s ruling party—and an outspoken maverick and reformer—made it clear that many Arab leaders use anti-Americanism to beat off challenges to their regimes. They deliberately and routinely misrepresent the United States on theirs state-run media. “I think America is a force for good,” she said, “for freedom, for liberty, for human rights principles.” Does anyone ever remember hearing that viewpoint from an Arab leader expressed so clearly on the BBC—or on any other Western media outlet?
None of this is to suggest that anti-Americanism, fanned into flames by the Iraq war, isn’t a serious problem in many parts of the world. Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution co-chaired a 2005 Working Group on Anti-Americanism which found declining European support for U.S. efforts to fight terrorism. A poll of the European Union (the entity named by presidential candidate Barak Obama as one of America’s most important allies) found that 53 percent view the United States as a threat to world peace—the same percentage that regard North Korea and Iran as a threat.
It’s worth noting that, in Western countries, unfavorable views of America are concentrated among younger people. About 62 percent of Spaniards under the age of 30, for example, hold a negative view of the United States, compared to 39 percent of their elders. That may suggest that an older generation, with memories of America’s role in defeating fascism and communism, is resisting the propaganda campaigns of the political left. Yet the failure of political leaders in America and Great Britain to effectively counter the disinformation that pours out daily—especially in the Arab media—must rank as one of the greatest public diplomacy debacles of a generation.
Nevertheless, there is a basic decency to the American creed—that all men and women are endowed by their Creator with equal rights—which remains deeply appealing. Justin Webb, to his credit, articulated that essential decency. He openly referred to America’s democratic tradition, the idea of equality under the law, the commitment to free speech and freedom of religion. Webb’s concluding remarks, anathema to terrorists and their liberal sympathizers, ought to be instinctive to most Europeans and enlightened Muslims in the Arab world: “To hate the essence of America is to be anti-human.”