Recent tragic and violent events in the Arab world punctuated yet another dismal chapter in our mutual relations. Ostensibly, these events were a protest to an American short film that denigrated the prophet Muhammad.
But there are a number of root causes that explain them, including Arab anger and frustration with U.S.-Israeli policy, Third World perceptions of America as the proponent of excessive materialism in a world still teeming with poverty and a strong anti-colonial sentiment directed toward the United States. This latter condition is a dilemma least understood by Americans.
How did it come to pass that the United States has become a symbol of neo-imperialism in so much of the world when we began our national existence as the first anti-imperialist nation ever? The ideals of 1776, uniquely expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have served as the pillars of all subsequent struggles for freedom. Even North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh was enamored of them.
True, our small foray into imperialism in 1898 resulted in acquiring territories from Spain, notably the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Early on, the Philippines, judged unready for independence after the war, were promised freedom by 1944. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917.
In contrast to this "colonial" record has been our periodic 20th century intervention in Latin American affairs. It is in our own hemisphere where our anti-colonial dilemma first surfaces.
But the real watershed for passage of the United States from the champion of anti-colonialism to neo-imperialist power comes with the post-World War II changes that redefined the entire political profile of the planet. First, our European allies were all colonial powers, determined to hang on to an empire even as their defeats in Africa and Asia spawned national independence movements. Second, the Cold War with the Soviet Union - which might, at some point, turn nuclear-hot - meant we had to support our allies.
The first turning point defining the American dilemma came with the Suez Crisis of 1956. Britain, France and Israel went to war against Egypt when President Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to nationalize the Suez Canal. To the surprise of the French and British, the United States did not support them or Israel. But the Soviets, under Nikita Khruschev, skillfully played the anti-colonial card as they sought to become a presence in the Middle East. And the United States lost a great opportunity to serve as a broker in the Arab-Israeli quandry. It was only after two Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973 that the United States was able to assume the broker role. In 1978, under President Jimmy Carter, America brokered the Camp David Accords, leading to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
Still, we were not certified as a neo-imperialist power until the Congo Crisis of 1960. Belgium granted the Congo independence in June 1960, but the land was woefully unprepared for it. By July, the new nation was fragmenting. It seemed that the whole world took sides in this catastrophe: the Soviet Union, Cuba (which declared itself a communist state in 1961) China and Egypt favored the leftist central government of Patrice Lumumba. The United States and Belgium supported reactionary and secessionist forces.
After the Congo crisis, there was no going back. We were tarred with the paint of imperialism. Soon we were involved in Vietnam. Ever since, it has been fashionable in many circles to view the United States as the neo-colonial imperialist power par excellence.
The Iranian hostage crisis added yet another dimension to our standing as an agent of imperialism, involving as it did full-scale outrage against U.S. materialism on both a cultural level and a religious one. For the new rulers of Iran, America became the great Satan - material, imperial and oppressive. This portrayal of America found at least some currency in non-Islamic parts of the Third World as well.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a new globalism, anti-colonialism acquired a transposed definition and a new back-history. In some quarters, all European and American expansion in the world was deemed reprehensible, a genocide against the indigenous - especially in the New World. Furthermore, anti-colonialism has resurfaced in the global setting as a demand for reparations for past perceived injustices.
Today, in new curriculums, movies and global propaganda, Americans are taught to be ashamed of the homeland. The United States must reject these positions. We must protect and defend our diplomatic personnel abroad. We will continue to give aid and support to nations seeking to promote democratic governments. President Obama must proudly and aggressively defend America's position as freedom's best friend.
We have nourished freedom far more than any other political system in history and we try to be better still. And that helps all people everywhere.
Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences. His doctorate research focused on colonialism after World War II. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.