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Anti-Americanism and the Funeral of a Great Myth

Remember when anti-Americanism was all the rage?

Throughout most of the Bush administration, opinion pollsters relentlessly tracked America's plummeting approval ratings across the planet. We were hated because of George Bush's "unilateralism," the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America's alliance with Israel, our double standards about promoting democratic values, and so on.

Leading the dreary chorus was Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Every few months, it seemed, Kohut trumpeted the "abysmal" results of yet another "global attitudes" survey warning of the gathering storm of anti-Americanism, especially in the Middle East. "There is considerable evidence that the opinion many Muslims have of the United States has gone beyond mere loathing," Kohut wrote in 2003. "American policies and power fuel resentment for the U.S. throughout the world."

The remedy for the "fear and loathing" generated by the actions of the United States, we were instructed, was Barack Obama. Orator, man of peace, multiculturalist, citizen of the world -- here was a leader with "rock star appeal" who would "restore America's image" at home and abroad.

Well, rock star Obama is looking more like the hollow-eyed Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Last September, violent anti-American protests broke out in over 20 countries across the Muslim world, from Afghanistan to Indonesia, following the release of an online film mocking the prophet Muhammad. In Libya, Islamic militants armed with antiaircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. It was the first violent death of an American diplomat since 1979.

Last week, an astonishing 19 U.S. embassies and consulates were shut down across the Middle East and Africa because of "on-going concerns" about terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula --a threat level to American diplomats never experienced in nearly 250 years of diplomatic activity. The United States is regularly denounced in Arab media as "the engineer of destruction" and the enemy of Islam. In Egypt -- that longtime American ally -- President Obama is burned in effigy or depicted with a beard and turban, announcing his "support for terrorism." Demonstrators routinely throng the streets of Arab cities chanting "irhal" -- get out -- as they desecrate the American flag.

All of this is occurring with an American president who delivered an apologetic address in Cairo to Muslims worldwide, in which he chastised his own nation for treating Arab states "without regard to their own aspirations." It is occurring under a president who has empathized, like no other, with the narrative of victimization that sustains much of the Muslim world.

Anti-Americanism has surged, in fact, just as the United States has reduced or eliminated its "imperialist" footprint in the Middle East. Consider: President Obama has withdrawn all U.S. combat troops from Iraq; he is pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan next year; and he has taken a hands-off approach to the political revolutions in Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Vali Nasr, former senior foreign policy advisor in the Obama administration, describes America as "a superpower tired of the world and in retreat, most visibly from the one area of the world where it has been most intensely engaged."

Despite this strategic retreat, it now appears that anti-Americanism in Muslim lands is more violent and more intractable than it was a decade ago. This signals not merely the failure of American foreign policy. To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, we are witnessing the funeral of a great myth.

It is one of a cluster of pernicious doctrines that unite the Arab world and find succor among liberal elites in the West: the idea that the United States is largely responsible for the hatreds and outright dystopia that afflict many Muslim-majority countries. This myth took on epic proportions during the Bush administration, transmitted by its cultured despisers here and in Europe. Typical was the verdict of The Nation magazine, which declared shortly after 9/11 that the American flag "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war."

Once America repented of its militarism, withdrew from the Middle East, and renounced its "war on Islam," anti-Americanism would melt away. Islamic radicalism would be tempered. Terrorism would give way to diplomacy.

The nakedness of this myth was exposed soon after Barack Obama took office. A Pew Research Center poll taken in 2009, drawing on 27,000 interviews in 22 countries, found that majorities of Muslim populations still believed that America played a mostly destructive role in the world. Large numbers voiced robust support for terrorism and Osama bin Laden. Kohut and his colleagues at the Pew Research Center seemed embarrassed by the results: they scaled back their massive surveys of anti-Americanism and have downplayed them on their website.

What, after all, do these polls actually tell us about the state of affairs in the world? The polling methods are blind to the cultural pathologies -- the religious rage, scapegoating, and crackpot conspiracy theories -- that shape the narrative of the respondents. What is the purpose of conducting "public opinion" surveys in Islamic regimes that ban political dissent, manipulate the media, subsidize hate speech in mosques and schools, and demonize America (and the state of Israel) to divert attention from their own failings?

The purpose of these polls, it seems, is to validate the grievances and personal agendas of the pollsters. This was excruciatingly clear in Andrew Kohut's book, America Against the World. The title says it all: it does not occur to these pollsters that the conflict is not between America and the world, but between civilization and barbarism.

James Caesar of the University of Virginia calls anti-Americanism "the political religion of modern times." It functions as a substitute belief system, providing meaning and consolation. But the sectarian turmoil in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere reminds us that reality has a way of intruding upon false religions: the funeral of a great myth is underway, and the air is heavy with its mournful song.

Joseph Loconte, PhD, is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of Gospel of Liberty: John Locke and the Struggle for Religious Freedom (Lexington Press, forthcoming).