A Matter of Perspective

There was a time, many years ago, when I took a six month sublet on a house. The rent was so reasonable that I couldn’t pass up on the deal, but the place was going to be sold after the lease was up so I knew that I couldn’t stay there any longer than that.

The house wasn’t furnished, and I wasn’t about to shell out a few hundred bucks for curtains or blinds for all of those windows. I thumbtacked bedsheets up so the neighbors wouldn’t have to see me wandering around the place.

A woman I was seeing at the time was appalled! “You have bedsheets over the windows! What will the neighbors think?”

She didn’t understand, so I sat her down and gently explained that it didn’t matter one little bit what opinion the neighbors formed. I was going to be gone in 180 days, never to see any of them again for the rest of my life. No, what really mattered was what I thought of them!

After all, I work nights and keep odd hours. All I would have to do would be to turn my TV or stereo up a little in the wee hours of the morning to be a real nuisance. I didn’t own the house, so it was their property values at risk if I didn’t bother to mow the lawn or take the trash out. There wasn’t a thing they could do to me in the brief time I was going to be there that would matter one little bit, while I could cause a fair amount of frustration.

Not that I was looking for a fight, of course. Just like most people, I prefer to get along. They didn’t bother me so I acted just like I always do and was the best neighbor on the block. Considering my sensitivity to security issues and my odd schedule, that little section of suburbia was actually safer while I was living there. Sort of like having an unpaid security guard living next door.

I am sharing this slice of my past with you because of this news story on the Reuters website. It seems that Arab attitudes concerning the United States is growing ever more negative, which supposedly indicates that a change in US foreign policy is needed.

In recent years, a Liberal talking point has become the linchpin of many complaints concerning the Bush administration. This trope can best be summed up by the phrase “They don’t like us anymore!”

It seems that the American public in general and our elected government specifically is supposed to drop everything and pay close attention to the opinions and attitudes of people living in other countries, people who cannot vote in US elections and who almost certainly do not have our best interests at heart. These opinions are supposed to dictate how the US public votes, and it is supposed to play a central role when our government makes major policy decisions.

The big problem is that I just can’t see why I should give two hoots about how the US polls overseas. This goes double when it comes to opinions collected in third world dictatorships, places where the press is a tool of whatever royal family or oppressive religious organization that demonizes the US in order to cover up their own failings.

When considered in this light, actually changing our foreign policy just because an opinion poll says we should would mean that our elected officials aren’t doing their job to look out for our interests. In fact, it might even be a treasonous act.

This blog normally tilts towards the right side of the political aisle, so there aren’t too many Liberals dropping by. But if there should happen to be one or two that stumble across this post, maybe they could explain why the opinion of the great unwashed in other countries should matter one fig when it comes to our foreign policy.

After all, history teaches us that these people are going to hate us no matter what we do. Why in the world does it matter if they hate us a little more?

Discuss this post at the Chicago Boyz Forum.

22 thoughts on “A Matter of Perspective”

  1. Generally speaking, I agree that there’s not a whole lot to be done about anti-American sentiment in other countries, and that there’s a certain acceptable level of U.S. hating.

    Having said that, I think you need to give the liberal talking point on anti-American sentiment a bit more credit with respect to Iraq. I distinctly remember more than a few of my more hawkish friends (in spring 2003) discussing how removing Hussein would significantly improve existing problems of anti-American sentiment.

    In essence, the argument, at the time was basically the one that Cheney was making before the war, that there would be no significant insurgency and it would go down in history as a cliffs notes version of the 1944 Liberation of France. Several relatives of mine suggested that the U.S. image in Europe would improve within a couple months when the French saw how happy and peaceful the Iraqis were after a swift transition to democracy. Some of my more aggressive friends even pushed that Iran would be happy with us, since we’d be removing their old nemesis from the 1980’s.

    None of the above should be construed as justifying the liberal overuse of the anti-American sentiment. I only want to use the anti-American sentiment card against people that mentioned it pre-war.

  2. I used to have a running argument with a friend that started when I said something along the lines of “Why should I care what (fill in the blank) thinks?” Her response was “You don’t think we should care about International Opinion?” and went from there. Other than ‘we should try to make them think better of us’- which usually involved changing ourselves to fit what International Opinion demanded- she had no answer. It was just a given to her that we HAD to care and HAD to change so as to fit in better with what other countries wanted.

    I didn’t really care what other countries thought about the war, because it always seemed that they desperately wanted someone else to do something so A: they wouldn’t have to and B: so they could bitch that it had been done badly/wrongly/insensitively/etc. Same thing on other matters; we cannot allow ourselves to be ruled by International Opinion, especially when it’s being directed by people who really would like to see us hurt.

  3. Some liberals would argue along the line that you suggested yourself–they “prefer to get along”. This is sometimes referred to as the quaint virtue of civility. The liberals might argue that if 90% of your neighbors wish you were gone from the neighborhood, and that if 60% of them thought that violence directed at you was justified, then quite possibly you have worn out your welcome. That, of course, would be an extreme and unimaginable scenario, but the liberal might argue that even if we don’t make it a goal of satisfying others’ opinions it is still possible to use those opinions as one form of feedback on how our paternalistic policies are affecting other people. And, if, heaven forbid, the extreme and unimaginable scenario described above were to manifest itself, some liberals would argue that such opinions constitute a canary in the mineshaft type warning.

  4. Some people you want to hate you. We shouldn’t seek the approval of those who hold values radically different ours.

    Many if not most people in the Arab world are racist and religious bigots with a distinctly medieval mindset. We don’t want their approval just yet. Their vision of a just world is not one that we can share. Making them happy would require sacrificing to many of our own principles.

    Our long term goal must be to reform the medieval culture into something capable of functioning in the modern world. Only then should we begin to worry about our popularity.

  5. Bob,

    …that there would be no significant insurgency…

    By any objective measure, there isn’t any significant insurgency compared to any other similar real world event. 80%+ of the Iraqi population support the liberation and the occupation as evidenced by numerous opinion polls and the results of free elections. Only the distorting effect of modern media methods creates the impression of a widespread uprising just like they create the perception of crime waves on the local news.

    What war advocates like Cheney and myself misjudged was not the popularity of liberation or the degree of support for insurgents but rather the degree to which Iraqi civil society and skill base had eroded under Saddam’s rule. Put simply, Iraqis don’t trust one another and do not know how to cooperate to manage large scale organizations. Saddam made things work by brute force and terror. He only allowed the politically reliable to acquire real skills and experience and even then few had the level of skills needed to meet democratic standards. No one in Iraq knows how to run a uncorrupt police force constrained by the rule of law. The Iraqi army has no experienced officers who can lead men by example instead of herding them with terror. Even basic civil services like sanitation, power and water collapsed because the people managing them can’t make the organizations work without resorting to intimidation.

    If Irag had the level of basic social and political functioning as say, Mexico, the insurgency would have been crushed within weeks.

    Saddam intentionally pitted the people of Iraq against each other down to the level of sub-clans. He forced every person to learn to steal from strangers so that they could provide for their own. Everybody expects to have to screw over everyone else and they expect that everyone else will be forced to do so in return.

    The problem in Iraq isn’t one of a popular and widespread insurgency. The problem is one of a dysfunctional society that cannot manage basic law and order without draconian methods. A tiny group of insurgents can survive because the much larger population cannot unite against them. The task in Iraq now is to get ordinary Iraqi to trust one another and their institutions to the point that they feel that as individuals they can take the risk necessary to defeat the insurgents.

    That is what is taking so much time. Our popularity has nothing to do with it.

  6. Mark Moore left a comment…..

    The liberals might argue that if 90% of your neighbors wish you were gone from the neighborhood, and that if 60% of them thought that violence directed at you was justified, then quite possibly you have worn out your welcome.

    If they had that opinion even if I was a benefit to them and their children, then they are bigots who need to change their minds.

    An example would be the prejudice that newly prosperous black families suffered when they bought houses in certain white neighborhoods in the 1970’s. I think it is likely that you could find some areas where the same opinions would be expressed about the new arrivals, just as I think you would agree that those people were wrong.

    One of the reasons given in the news article for Arab discontent with the US was that we are trying to spread and promote democracy. That more than anything else tells me that they are on the wrong side of history.


  7. We can not be as effective if the values we want to instill in others are not respected because we demonstrate their worth in an unattractive way. It is a good idea to think of our civic life as a demonstration of the virtues of the marketplaces of ideas, religion & economics, of transparency & the rule of law.
    That does not mean that we should sacrifice our safety, our values, or our friends because some other country is critical of us.

    Being liked: the Europeans who see us as cowboys thrice in the last century expected us to rescue them; the 99% pro-Saddam vote became that of a 99% anti-Saddam nation.

    Last Sunday, Bill Kristol turned on Juan Williams who had just said, ah, the Iraqis want us out of Iraq and polled Americans want us out of Iraq. Kristol’s response was that he’d like the killing to stop in Darfur and peace to come to the Middle East – “like” won’t cut it. He was clearly raised right. Of course, adults understand what we’d like isn’t easily obtained by answering a poll. And “liking” something may work as a goal but it won’t be sufficient to obtain it.

  8. Shannon states that 80 plus percent of Iraqis support the occupation. The polls I’ve seen are saying instead that most Iraqis want us out immediately. I don’t know where he’s getting his information from.

    As for caring about what international opinion thinks, I care about what others think because I’m wrong sometimes. I ask colleagues to comment on my writings, for example..and not just the ones who are my “client states” if I had any.

  9. A Comment (9:39),

    . The polls I’ve seen are saying instead that most Iraqis want us out immediately.

    Maybe you shouldn’t rely on polls from Al-Jezeera and similar sources. I don’t think that I have seen a single western poll where support for the liberation and occupation ran less than 50%. Even more telling, the people of Iraq repeatedly vote for politicians and parties who support the occupation. The democratically elected government of Iraq just requested and received from the UN a formal mandate requiring the continued occupation. Neither are there massive anti-American protest or other forms of non-violent protest. People are not voting with their feet and leaving the country (except for some Sunni-Arabs). The people of Iraq do not want a permanent occupation but there are simply no indicators seek an immediate end before things stabilize.

    The idea that the majority of Iraqi oppose the US presence springs from willful ignorance and self-delusion. Iraq’s population is approximately 20% Sunni Arab, 60% Shia-Arab, 15% Sunni-Kurds and %5 smaller ethnic groups. Of those, only Sunni-Arabs have any desire to return to the old order when they ruled with an iron fist. For everyone else, the liberation and reconstruction only improved their lives. Most people in Iraq are smart enough to know that if the US leaves without leaving a stable self-managing government, the end result will be a bloody civil war which will make the violence of the occupation look like two toddlers fighting over a teddy bear by comparison. Given history, the Shia-Arabs, Sunni-Kurds can expect nothing from a US abandonment except for a return to brutal domination by the Sunni-Arab minority, Why would they want that?

    People who oppose the war soothe their consciences by deluding themselves into believing that the people of Iraq share their exact same perspective even though the experiences and beliefs of the Iraqi people differ radically. You saw the same thing during the Vietnam war. Anti-war types convinced themselves that the vast majority of people in South Vietnam wanted reunification with North Vietnam under the Stalinist rule of Ho Chi Min. John Kerry famously said that if the communist took over, we would only have to evacuate about 3,000 people to protect them from the wrath of the communist. In reality, when North Vietnam invaded, hundreds of thousands fled the advancing armies (and many of those simply disappeared and are believed to have been killed). During the US phase of the war, Indochina had no major refugee problem, yet after the abandonment millions fled. Somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the people who tried to leave vietnam after the communist victory died in the attempt. Yet they kept trying because internal conditions were that bad. This outcome was easily predictable, indeed was predicted by many, based on the known nature and methods of communist regimes. Yet millions of very intelligent people around the world convinced themselves otherwise because such a rational served to advance their own immediate political and social goals.

    The same dynamic is at play today in Iraq. People invent elaborate fantasies about why the liberation occurred and what the people of Iraq really want. If they succeed in enforcing policy based on their self-delusions, the people of Iraq will suffer just as the people of Indochina did.

  10. The Arab streets did not rise up. When the Iraqis started voting, tentative elections (even quite local & small ones in Saudi Arabia) appeared; Libya began to act as they had not for a generation. But, as the “slog” continued and sectarianism (fueled by those who did not find that wave of openness attractive and indeed found it threatening) violence became more pronounced (and God knows more publicized), we see an opposite “wave.” That alone should tell us how important Iraq is. That we – and the Arab street – often have the attention span of gnats is not useful in making policy.

  11. I mentioned that the polls I’ve seen indicated that most Iraqis want us out immediately.

    I refer to a UK Ministry of Defense poll held in November of 2005


    and a survey (never repeated) conducted by the Coalition Authority itself in 2004 indicating strong opposition. They probably conducted it only because they were expecting better numbers.


    I haven’t seen any polls since, but I doubt Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shiite, suddenly approve of the occupation in 2006. Why not? For one reason, a friend close to the situation pointed out that American troops can’t tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. At best,they are no help at all in the bloody quasi-civil war going on, and at worst, they can be manipulated into interfering to the advantage of one side or other.

    But Shannon has asserted that not one Western poll has found support of less than 50%. I’d be interested in more information. (The vote held in 2004 is not quite the same thing).

    By the way, the polls matter because even if we didn’t have other massive evidence that the occupation is not going well and the situation is getting worse, the polls suggest that we will probably never achieve our objectives with a population that wants us out.

  12. The Brookings Institute tends to aggregate statistical information on what is going on in Iraq. That polls show a decline in “was it worth it?” from Iraqis is hardly surprising, timed after the increase in sectarian violence. Their analysis begins with the following:

    In January 2006 most Shias (84%) believed their country was heading in the right direction. In our September poll, only 59% believed this, a 25-point drop. The number of Shias who think ousting Saddam Hussein was worth it has also dropped by 25 points (from 98% to 75%). What are the major factors behind this drop in Shia confidence?

    Might I point out that in a sense such polls are in a vacuum – that is, would we like America out? Sure, as Bush has said for years, no one likes another country’s army in his country. This isn’t really the question, though, is it? That’s kind of like asking if you’d want Bush to be president (well, I would, but that’s beside the point). A lot of people would say, no – I think he shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, I think he should have sent more troops in, I think he should have vetoed more spending bills, I think he cut too much money for a project I like, I think his position on stem cells is wishy/washy, I think his position on stem cells is anti-science and anti-man. But it isn’t like the perfect person is going to be the opponent. Then, we realize that we have to make compromises.

    What would an Iraq without the American army be like? That is when the rubber hits the road and that is when the leaders go to the UN and say they want us to stay. Sure, they don’t want it. They just want what it would be like without us a lot less.

  13. Ginny’s quote from the Brookings interview is not, of course, the same as saying the Iraqis don’t want us out. The same article goes on to say “It is important to emphasize that the vast majority of both Sunnis and Shias want the United States out.” The poll showed that ” seven in ten Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to commit to withdraw within a year. An overwhelming majority believes that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is provoking more conflict than it is preventing…”

    I’m not sure what Ginny means by saying Iraqis “want what it would be like without us a lot less.” Seems Iraqis polled are pretty straightforward in what they want. (Unfortunately, the same poll says 62% even of the Shiites, and more among the Sunnis, approve of attacks on American forces…not good).

    Ginny compares the Iraqis’ position to that of a person who didn’t vote for Bush in a democracy and now has to “make compromises”. It’s not the same. The US invaded and is occupying their country. If the Chinese, with the best intentions, invaded the US in order to fix our electoral system or for some other noble reason and then stayed indefinitely, a good patriot like Ginny would be setting bombs, not making compromises.

  14. I’m afraid that I did not write as clearly as I should have. I apologize.

    I’ll make my point again, more carefully. It wasn’t that someone we didn’t choose gets elected & so we have to live with it. Such compromises are part of a democracy, that is true, and something that takes some getting used to. Still, my point was that sometimes we have two bad choices. Putting one up by itself, we are likely to say, no, I don’t want that. Putting it up against something else, we say, yes, I prefer that particular bad. As Shannon observes, the people who have to really make that decision are the ones who say they want Amerians to stay. These are the real “realists.” It is they who are thinking “Consider the alternative.”

    Of course, Iraqis do not want Americans there. That would seem a given in any understanding of human nature. But the three major groups realize that with us but more likely & bloodily without us they are proxies in an area-wide Shia/Sunni conflict, that the tensions within Iraq are being exacerbated by a constant flow of foreign fighters. They don’t have a good choice – they didn’t with Saddam. But they do have a goal – and America leaving is not the first step.

  15. I think that Ginny is saying that the Iraqis polled, who say they want us out ASAP, don’t know what’s best for themselves, or that if they had been given a better option in the poll (such as our staying indefinitely?) they would have chosen the option. I agree that some Iraqis may not be thinking entirely rationally. More than 70,000 civilians have died (conservatively). Given that the population of Iraq was 25 million (a million and a half of the middle class have fled), in US population terms that would be the violent deaths of more than 840,000 Americans….I suspect Americans would blame an invader/occupier in similar circumstances. Meanwhile the occupiers are riding around in armored vehicles doing basically nothing to stop the bloodshed, or making things worse.

  16. Well the invader/occupier isn’t killing the 70,000 civilians. And the alternatives available are not necessarily ones that principally concern our relation to them. The world is bigger than the U S & the problems with which Iraq is embroiled are not all of the U.S.’s making.

    This reminds me of those who declared the problems in Viet Nam were all of America’s making and ignored (and still ignore) the slaughter that followed. When McGovern says, ah, see, we are friends with Viet Nam now, that proves that we shouldn’t have been there – and ignores all that followed, I am left breathless at his flippancy. People of his political beliefs somehow justify to themselves that they “care” about others internationally. This is hypocrisy. It is not I who am condescending to Iraqis nor I who think they don’t know what is good for them.

  17. The US came in and made things really bad. When we leave–which we will–things will become even worse. Why does that fact justify our invasion? Care or not care, the fact is that the US took a society suffering under a brutal dictatorship and inflicted the much worse agony of anarchy and civil war. I and so many others predicted in 2003 that this was likely to happen; I don’t know if was “caring” or simple realism.

  18. There’s a high level of violence in Iraq, but that’s been the case since long before we were there. There may well be less killing now than there was under Hussein. It certainly isn’t obvious that things are worse, despite your assumption. There’s an elected government, much more personal and press freedom, more economic activity, etc. Much if not most of Iraq is reasonably tranquil. The huge economic drain imposed by a parasitic dictatorship is no longer present. There is danger, but people aren’t at risk of having everyone in their village or neighborhood summarily slaughtered, as happened on many occasions under the old regime. Maybe I’m wrong and the situation in Iraq is really worse than I think, but that’s certainly not obvious.

    What I don’t understand is the vehemence of many people who take your position. It is as if they are offended by suggestions that our involvement in Iraq isn’t the worst situation in the world, that it isn’t the worst situation we’ve been in as a country, or that we could still win. Why this defeatism? There are other situations (Darfur, Iran, NK) in the world, right now, that are at least as bad as Iraq along the dimensions that our anti-war people profess to be concerned about — deaths, potential for deaths, and danger to the USA or other countries. Yet those situations draw much less interest.

    OK, so we’re in Iraq and things are not going well. Why not try to salvage the situation by making an effort to win? What’s wrong with that? If we’re going to suffer and make other people suffer, which will happen whether we stay or leave, shouldn’t we try to get something in exchange, in terms of our national interests?

  19. It’s one thing to act independently to protect your interests, to go against the conventional wisom or collective will to further your own goals. It’s another thing entirely to actively cultivate the ire of you neighbors just becuase you think you have the upper hand. Even the Chinese aren’t as openly arrogant and blatanly hypocritical about furthering their interests.

    As Oscar Wilde said, “A gentleman never inflicts pain…unintentionally.”

  20. I think we did about the best we could to get other nations to go along with us. We spent 6 months arguing in the UN before we invaded, and all of that talk and delay came at considerable later expense to us in lives and logistical inconvenience (refused transit by Turkey). And we did get about twenty nations to collaborate with us. Several of the noteworth exceptions, such as France, were committed to following their own interests at our expense.

    Your Oscar Wilde quote reminds me of the occasion when a journalist asked De Villepin whether he preferred the USA or Saddam Hussein to win, and De Villepin refused to answer.

    We would have done much better to act unilaterally rather than try to buy the love of a bunch of corrupt and cynical governments for whom maintaining a business relationship with Saddam Hussein was more important than the noble fight against the dictators and Islamists.

  21. Better analogy might be dealing with a corrupt town, instead of focusing on a functioning neighborhood. How do we make things better? Liberal approach: “I prefer to get along”, so I encourage connectivity, transparency, and dialog. Illiberal approach: “I just can’t see why I should give two hoots”, so I decide what’s right for them based on my utopian visions and impose it on them by force, since might makes right.

  22. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I try to live my life in a way that I base my decisions on what is right, not what other people think. Sometimes the opinions of others shed light and give me perspective on my actions, but I have to vet these points of view very carefully, for sometimes other people’s values are different than their own and their motivations are based on their own selfish interests.

    That’s the approach I try to take and I would be happy if my government did the same.

    James, I like the bedsheets story. I have had girlfriends who, even they were only going to stay some place for three months, would spend the first month decorating and their last two weeks packing up all the furnishings.

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