Ten years after American forces pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, the Kuwaiti people are telling American reporters they have come to prefer the people murdering Americans. “I hate the American government,” one member of the Kuwaiti parliament told CBS reporter Mike Wallace on “Sixty Minutes” last week. That, in a nutshell, is what we get for a foreign policy devoted to spreading democracy and do-good instead of pursuing our own national interests.
The reason the Kuwaiti apostle of democracy hates us, he said, is that we support Israel against Palestine and through our military aid to the Jewish state allow the Israelis to kill and repress Palestinians. The Palestinians are Arabic and, for the most part, Muslims, and the Kuwaiti therefore feels a strong identity with them. He’s not alone.
The New York Times, a few days before the “Sixty Minutes” segment on anti-Americanism in the Persian Gulf micro-state that Americans forced Saddam Hussein to disgorge in 1991, carried a story along similar lines. It reported on one Kuwaiti family that decided last year to name its new-born son after one of the most popular figures in the country: Osama bin Laden. (NYT, November 16, 2001,For Some Kuwaitis, the Ardor for America Cools by Douglas Jehl Pay archive.)
It also reported on why bin Laden is so popular. “It seems the Americans only want to support Israel and attack the Muslims. And if this is a war between Christians and Muslims, we ought to fight.” The American bombing in Afghanistan has seemed to confirm these views among many Kuwaitis, especially since most of the Afghans being bombed had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks on American targets.
One Kuwaiti businessman, who spent years in the United States and is not anti-American, told the Times, “I have never seen resentment toward the United States as much as I’ve seen in the last few weeks.” The Kuwaiti government, plugged back into its sockets by U.S. power after the Gulf war a decade ago, has been tepidly supportive of President Bush’s “war on terrorism,” but the Kuwaiti people are less than tepid.
“In conversations around Kuwait,” the Times reports, “in offices and shops and the nighttime political and social gatherings … ordinary people said their good feelings toward the United States were eroding every day.”
Ten years ago, the U.S. government told Americans they were fighting Iraq to stop aggression and support freedom—in a country that didn’t even have a parliament back then. We heard a great deal about how Iraq’s troops committed mass rapes and murders in Kuwait and how all the atrocities stopped once the United States imported Truth, Freedom and Justice at the point of bayonets.
There were, of course, more mundane reasons for the Gulf war—not the least the need to secure American and Western access to oil resources—but it’s hard to get a civilian population excited about stuff like that. It’s easier to crank them up to fever pitch by casting the war as a conflict between Good and Evil. Most Americans probably believed that, just as they believe that’s why we’re bombing Afghanistan now.
Not everyone else sees it that way, of course, but that’s not quite the point. The larger and more important point is that in fighting what we want to think are conflicts between Good and Evil, we expect the people we help to love us for it. Probably they should, but the fact is they don’t.
They don’t love us because they are evil or morally inferior but because, as part of a different civilization and a different set of kinships and loyalties, they can’t help but identify with their own people—Palestinians and Afghans—more than with those who aren’t their people—Christians, Jews, Americans and Westerners.
The response we get for helping people who are not part of our civilization is not unlike what Rudyard Kipling tried to warn us about: “Take up the White Man’s Burden —/and reap his old reward:/ The blame of those ye better,/ The hate of those ye guard.”
Kipling, like most imperialists, was willing to live with the hatred and ingratitude Westerners receive for their efforts to help other peoples, but most Americans aren’t imperialists and they don’t much care for the old reward they’re getting.
Right now, there’s something of a debate going on in this country as to whether the United States should be an empire or not. Before we decide, we need to think about what empires involve. They’re not all victory parades and shiny uniforms; they also involve the hatred, justified or not, that many, not just in Kuwait but throughout the Arab world, feel for America today—and don’t imagine we won’t pay a price for that hatred sooner or later. “The silent, sullen peoples,” Kipling also wrote, “shall weigh your Gods and you.”