Golda Meir said she would rather have a bad editorial than a good obituary; her wisdom seems in short supply today.
Like a high-school kid, America has become obsessed with popularity. It's expressed in a number of ways, all of them starting with a required insult thrown in the direction of former President George W. Bush: 1) We must restore our image; 2) We want America to be loved again; 3) Bush took all that good will after 9-11 and trashed it; 4) Why are we hated?
President Obama does his first post-inaugural interview with an Arab TV outlet and bows to the Muslim world. The United States decides to participate in the planning for Durban 2, the successor to the infamous Durban 1 conference of 2001, which descended into anti-Semitic lunacy. We are showing "respect" for diplomacy, we're told. The secretary of state travels to Asia and essentially apologizes for America's past behavior, even ridiculing her own country for the way it developed its industries. Apparently, the industrial revolution of the late 1800s just wasn't green enough for her. All this in the name of popularity or "improving our image."
After 9-11, President Bush visited an Islamic center to proclaim that this country was at war only with terrorists, not with Islam. And yet, our popularity plunged in the Muslim world. We were told, with a straight face, that it was our fault; that Muslims felt "offended" by the war on terror. Never before had a nation, our nation, done so much to make people understand that our anger wasn't directed against them as a people or as a culture. But it did no good.
One reason President Obama was elected was the belief, expressed in endorsement after endorsement, that he could "restore" our standing in the world. It seems a bit odd for those who recall Vice President Richard M. Nixon's trip to Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958, when he was almost killed by an America-hating mob.
In fact, anti-Americanism, a real loathing of America, has always been with us. Some Europeans, in particular, have resented us for our success and for the fact that America is the child of Europe, made up largely of people who rejected Europe for the New World. Europeans can feel like rejected parents. The dislike felt in Europe is often aided by so-called "intellectuals" from the United States, who join in the loathing and encourage European disdain. It is further aided by an active Marxist-oriented press in Europe, which, during the Cold War, often turned its venom on America, not the Soviet Union.
The image we have been handed is that Europe loved us after 9-11, sympathized with us, stood with us. In fact, it took the BBC precisely 48 hours after the attacks to go on the air with an anti-American program so vicious that a former American ambassador to Britain broke down in tears. The French paper Le Monde ran the headline, "We are All Americans Now," after the planes struck New York and Washington. Americans took that as an expression of solidarity, not realizing that the editorial below it contained a strong dose of anti-Americanism.
The Muslim world? The Marine Corps hymn begins with, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." The Tripoli part refers to our war with the Barbary states of North Africa, Muslim states, in the first years of the 19th century. We have never been popular in the Muslim world. It was not George Bush who created that situation, and the arrival of Barack Obama has not produced any upsurge in affection. For those who claim that our unpopularity is the result of our support of Israel, we might ask them to explain the Marine hymn.
The point, of course, is that popularity is greatly overrated. When Europeans, in full patronizing mode, tell us that they wish for a return to the "America we loved," we might ask them when that love occurred. It's hard to recall it. A friend tells of being advised, when traveling to Europe, to hide her American identity because of the anti-Americanism there. The year was 1950, five years after the end of World War II, when American blood had been critical in the liberation of Europe from fascism.
We should probably stop worrying so much about popularity, and concentrate on winning our battles with those who would destroy or diminish us. Should we strive to be liked? Of course. But to become fixated on being liked only leads to appeasement and a compromise of our basic interests. Some Americans obsess over winning "hearts and minds," a phrase from the Vietnam War. But we didn't lose that war by losing "hearts and minds." We lost it by abandoning our Vietnamese allies because of domestic political pressures here.
As some military men have pointed out, win the battle and it's amazing how hearts and minds seem to follow.
We must also realize, when agonizing over popularity, that the world extends beyond Western Europe and the Muslim nations. President Bush was immensely popular in much of Africa because of his AIDS program. He was highly respected in much of Eastern Europe. He maintained a firm alliance with Japan. And he did more to bring India to our side than any previous American president. All those things may turn out to be far more important than the opinions hatched in the cafes of Paris or the eating halls of British universities.
We must also understand that popularity often is a function, not of what we do, but of how it is reported. It is the world's media that shapes the perception of events, not the events themselves; and much of the world's media operates under standards that would shock most Americans.
As a superpower, we will not always be popular, and not always loved. We will be ridiculed, laughed at by "superior" Europeans, called names. But more people still want to come to the United States than to all other nations combined. And if America becomes weak as we grovel for popularity, we will become even more unpopular, for nothing is more despised and feared in the international system than weakness.
Popularity, fine. But strength and determination are more important. Otherwise, we might just end up with that good obituary.