This article was first published here on ForeignPolicy.com on February 5, 2019.
One of the perks of my job is that every now and then I get to spend time talking about the future of the Middle East in a place like Italy, as I did in early January. The night before the conference, after sharing a few bottles of red wine with some friends, I even had the occasion to confirm—at a small place near the Piazza del Popolo that had no discernible name but instead had a bright neon sign that simply read “Pizza/Gelato”—that the pizza in Rome runs a close second to the slices from my native Long Island.
But I didn’t just get a delicious meal that night. I also got an education on how the United States has recently managed to undermine its greatest foreign-policy assets: the norms, principles, and institutions that animate and organize U.S. society.
As soon as I ordered a slice of the zucchini blossom—a revelation—I realized that the guys behind the counter were not Italians. Almost reflexively, I asked in Arabic, “Where are you from?” The gentleman handling my order smiled and declared that he was Egyptian, as was his colleague behind the counter. The guy who greeted me as I came through the door—wide-eyed at the veritable feast of pizza—turned out to be Tunisian.
I initially intended to eat quickly and return to my hotel; it had been a long day of travel, and the wine was starting to drag me down. Even with the relatively late start to the meeting the following morning (European conferences are different from American ones), I was looking forward to bed. My curiosity got the better of me, though, and I found a second wind. For the next hour or so, my new friends and I enjoyed a raucous conversation, covering every issue in the Middle East from the internecine political struggles in Tunis to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and back.
The Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? They were not fans. The Saudis? There was no love lost. Iran? Given its distance both in miles and from the primary concerns of the people in their home countries, they were ambivalent. Yemen and Syria? Horrifying. The rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)? They did not care. With the exceptions of the wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as the differences among ruling families in the Gulf that created the GCC rift, this was standard fare—the subject of what must be thousands of conversations that I have had with folks from the Middle East since the first time I set foot in Egypt in 1993.
When I asked why Egypt had not become a democracy after the January 2011 uprising, the discussion took a more interesting turn. I did not get an exposition on Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repression. The Egyptians liked Sisi, but they also did not offer an explanation of the evils of the Muslim Brotherhood or even a disquisition on the shortcomings of that ill-defined agglomeration of people known as “the revolution.” Instead, one of them looked me straight in the eye and declared, “Don’t talk to us about democracy.”
Before I could ask why, he demanded to know whether America was truly a democracy. My friends and interlocutors in the Middle East have been giving me a hard time about the United States for years. In April 2014, I spent half a night countering charges from a group of Egyptians who wanted to know why the United States supported the Muslim Brotherhood. This was after spending time in Istanbul on the same trip trying my best to explain to people that the United States did not actually support the July 2013 coup in Egypt. Some years earlier, I had the discomfiting experience of being dressed down publicly for U.S. human rights violations in Iraq by a representative of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime in Tunisia. These complaints uniformly had everything to do with U.S. conduct in the world, but what my Egyptian pizza man was getting at was entirely new (for me).
While expressing outrage to me about Washington’s invasion of Iraq, its support for regional authoritarian allies, or America’s special relationship with Israel, Arabs have often articulated admiration for the way Americans live at home. They love American movies, hip-hop, heavy metal, the NBA, and McDonald’s, and many Arabs have relatively easy access to these quintessential aspects of American culture. Rather it was the things they did not have that Arabs admired most about the United States—freedom, equality, tolerance, and the rule of law.
I was struck that my new friends were well-versed in the recent police shootings of unarmed African-American men. They knew that Turks, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Iraqi Kurds had borne the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, taking in millions of refugees while the U.S. government separated children from their parents on the country’s southern border. And they repeated to me President Donald Trump’s declaration that the press was the “enemy of the people.”
For Middle Easterners like the guys in the pizza place, the United States is no longer a shining city on a hill. They recognize that the promise of America does not conform to reality and the gap between them is growing. No doubt some—or even much—of this jaundiced view of the United States has to do with the Trump administration. The president’s Muslim ban, his subtle and not-so-subtle nods to white nationalism, and his willingness to cast aspersions on Islam have convinced people that America is not what it has long claimed to be: free, equal, and tolerant.
Yet I am not convinced that America’s dismal image is entirely a reflection of the current administration. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown seem to have been a turning point. People from all over the world watched some of the worst of America in real time via their social media feeds and good old-fashioned television news. To Arabs and Turks, the tear gas falling on the streets of Ferguson was no different from the tear gas falling on Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Egypt, or Istiklal Caddesi in Turkey. And a fair number of them were more than willing take to Twitter to make that point.
Critics will no doubt argue that I am making a false equivalency between the United States and the authoritarian governments of the Middle East. That isn’t my intention. The differences are vast but especially in this important respect: America has never been perfect, but Americans always had positive myths about equality and democracy to which they could always aspire. And through those ideals, norms, principles, and institutions, the United States could—over time—realize those aspirations. Fewer and fewer people on the outside seem to believe it any longer.
Perhaps the old view was unrealistic and tinted with the rose-colored glasses of distance, but it was nevertheless powerful. It gave the United States influence and prestige well beyond the standard measures of power. Clearly people in Guatemala, Honduras, and other places in Latin America continue to believe that the United States is a safe haven, but others are no longer so sure given the cynicism, hypocrisy, and cruelty that have seized U.S. politics in recent years. Soft power has always been a slippery idea, if only because it is hard to measure. Still, the combination of America’s founding ideals, guiding principles, and the defeat of fascism as well as communism contributed to the idea that the United States was exceptional. It became axiomatic within U.S. political discourse that the country was indispensable to the freedom and security of the world. The millions of people from around the globe who sought an education, refuge from tyranny, and fulfillment of their dreams on U.S. shores seemed to substantiate this claim.
I am torn by the passing of American exceptionalism, however. That foreigners may no longer regard the United States as a beacon of freedom distresses me personally. As someone who came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I understood that the country was far from perfect, but I always believed that with all its problems, the United States had the capacity to make good on its ideals. I know it still does.
Yet at the same time, I wonder whether the passing of American exceptionalism in the eyes of foreigners is positive. Perhaps it is better for them to see the United States as a living, breathing, and complicated society that, despite its unique creed, can be and has been unjust at home just as it has been abroad. It does not seem healthy for anyone to believe in the divine providence of the United States. It renders Americans complacent about the quality of their politics and offers non-Americans a distorted view of the country, even though that is precisely what was so dispiriting to my friends in the nameless pizza shop in Rome.