Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has an thoughtful article in at the Washington Post titled "Why Do They Hate Us?", in which he argues that much of American difficulties in the Muslim world come from short-sighted US foreign policy.
In the process, however, he buys into a dichotomy which is deeply misleading:
...growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s let me see firsthand the devastating effects that the best of U.S. intentions can have.
Talk about why so many Muslims hate the United States these days, and you'll hear plenty of self-flagellation, at least in some quarters of post-9/11 America. I have too much affection for the United States to join in. These people make up the "We deserve to be hated because we're bad" school of thought, which is simplistic and unhelpful. It is simplistic because there are 300 million different components of the "we" that is America. And it is unhelpful because it ignores so much that is good about the nation.
It sounds reasonable, but beneath the surface it sets up a false choice. We can side with those who think America is bad—morally bad, and deserving of punishment—or we can side with those who think that America is good, and that any negative consequences of US policy are just unfortunate side effects rooted in the best of intentions.
He calls the first position "simplistic and unhelpful", and I would agree—exactly insofar as I believe it exists. By contrast he implies that the second position is realistic, nuanced, and beneficial—and I would disagree, on the grounds that it is false.
The first position is a misrepresentation. There may be some self-flagellation going on in this country—especially post-9/11—and there is certainly plenty of criticism of US foreign policy by US citizens, but that is a far cry from the position that "we deserve to be hated because we're bad." In fact, the very people Hamid paints with this caricature are the people who have been saying many of the same things he says in his essay, and saying them before 9/11.
This position—or the closest one to it that has been really held by any sizable number of people—is the position that the US has tended to be short-sighted in its foreign policy, that we have frequently made the mistake of acting like a global bully, have disregarded the needs and concerns of other nations and peoples, and that there are repercussions for this behavior.
Nothing in this position requires that we have acted this way out of evil intentions, and nothing in this position requires that 9/11, or any other calamity be seen as punishment for our sins. 9/11, however, was the result, in large part, of our behavior. Acknowledging that is simply the grown-up thing to do. Using that information to change our behavior in the future is the intelligent thing to do.
The other position, which sees the US as a well-intended and benign uncle to the world, who just happens to be so powerful and clumsy that he leaves a trail of catastrophes as he shuffles along trying to help, is absurd. The US has, almost invariable, set policy according to its own interests. There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we are far-sighted enough to realize that what is good for everyone is, ultimately, good for us.
But we have not been that far-sighted. We encouraged jihad when we could use it to fight Russia—and we did it without asking ourselves whether a world with jihad was a world we would want to live in. We have overthrown democratically elected governments. We have tried to steal natural resources. And this has earned us enemies. The appropriate model is cause and effect, not judgement.
The adult response is to take responsibility—to admit our mistakes, admit that we operate in our own best interests as well, and go on to serve those interests by working with other nations to create a fair and safe world.
The childish response is to whine that we didn't mean it—to pretend that we are always just trying to help, and accuse anyone who questions that of claiming we are "bad".