From King Stork to King Log: America’s Negative Message Overseas

There are so many different views of America overseas that any effort to generalize is dangerous, and at least partially misleading. It would be equally dangerous, however, to ignore the growing level of criticism of U.S. strategy, the degree to which Russia and other critics of the United States have made gains at the expense of the United States, and the extent to which both the Bush and Obama Administrations have contributed to a steadily more negative view of U.S. power, influence, and competence.

Americans are used to listening largely to themselves, and to American criticism of America. It is a long way from the Arab (Persian) Gulf to Beijing, and stopping off to listen to Afghan and Pakistani voices is difficult and inconvenient. Most of the outside criticism Americans hear comes from Europe and is based on a shared set of political values even when they are most critical. Many allied countries outside America - like Japan - need the United States too much to be openly critical at an official level. The developing world has very different regional and national priorities. There is no one voice within — much less between — Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

In spite of all these qualifications, however, the United States needs to listen far closer to some of the key themes that America’s critics are raising in different international forums that focus on security. It is hard to attend any international conference on security, strategic studies, and foreign relations outside the United States without hearing an almost constant stream of criticism of U.S. actions and inactions, for having failed its allies, and often for having shown that efforts to create democracy are failures and that the answer is “stability” – even if that means a strong or authoritarian regime.

It also is increasingly difficult to attend such conferences outside the West without finding an active Russian presence that attacks the United States for destabilizing the Middle East and other parts of the developing world, and blames America as a key source of the rise of terrorism (and often for being the “founder” of ISIS). Russia may not be an enemy, but it is at least a rival and shows steadily less restraint in proving this.

The White House, the State Department, and Department of Defense not only need to listen very carefully to such criticism, they need send a strong counter message. Members of Congress and political candidates need to at least consider the cost of selfish political opportunism in terms of its impact on media coverage outside the United States and perceptions of American power and reliability as an ally.

From King Log to King Stork

These are also challenges that have bipartisan origins that are almost the reverse of one of Aesop’s most famous fables. In Aesop’s fable about the “Frogs Desiring a King,” the Frogs petition Jove to send them a king who will rule over them and keep order. Jove is amused by the frogs, begins by sending them a large log, a king that does them no harm but also does nothing at all. The frogs then complain to Jove, who now in anger sends them a stork – a bird that eats all of the frogs.

The view of the United States in the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Asia is the exact reverse of this fable. President Bush is seen as “King Stork.” Under Bush, America invaded Afghanistan, and launched a war on terrorism that created a massive new level of instability rather than bringing order. America invaded Iraq for either no reason, or as part of a conspiracy. It deprived the Middle East of a counterbalance to Iran, threw Iraq into a state of civil war, empowered terrorists and extremists, as well as Iran, divided Sunni and Shi’ite along far more violent lines, and created new threats to many of its regional allies.

In contrast, President Obama is seen as “King Log.” He is seen as leader who advances concepts without taking meaningful or constructive action, and who let the political uprisings that began in 2011 become a call for democracy that toppled several long-standing allied leaders like Mubarak, he triggered a mix of political chaos and civil war in the states where the United States intervened, failed to show decisive leadership in Syria and Afghanistan, and abandoned central Asia. He talked about a “pivot to Asia” and deploying “60 percent” of U.S. forces. But did so without creating any effective security structure and either deterring or creating a stable relationship with an emerging China.

In much of the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, he is seen as far too passive and inactive, and as a “King Log” who created an even worse mess in Iraq, and a new mess in Syria, and Libya; as well as further empowered a threatening Iran. Ironically, the Iran nuclear deal has so far done much to unify Israel and the Arab world in a growing distrust of the U.S. as well as Iran – perhaps the only positive sign of any current aspect of Arab-Israeli relations.

The Russian Worst Case

The United States also now operates in a climate where Russia is not neutral, and makes steadily increasing efforts to exploit all of these criticisms and to translate every American action – and some very real American mistakes – into conspiracy theories centered around the United States as having deliberately instigated political instability and “color revolutions” to serve its own interests and/or take over or influence states in the developing world.

Russia blames the United States for adopting the tactics they actually used themselves in Ukraine and dealing with Georgia and the small enclaves near the former Soviet Union. It takes advantage of the fears and anger growing out of steadily growing instability in much of the developing world and particularly in North Africa, the Middle East – ignoring the reality of failed governance and failed economic development that the Arab Development Reports warned could bring a regional crisis back in 2011.

Russian diplomats and official “retirees” keep up an aggressive effort to deliver these messages at various conferences and forums whenever they have the opportunity. They blame the United States for all of Iraq’s problems, creating ISIS by supporting Islamist movements in the Afghan struggle against Soviet occupation, for causing the uprisings that began in 2011 to use “democracy” to take over other states, for undermining Egypt, and for all of Syria’s problems – and less obtrusively for threatening China and Asian stability though the “pivot to Asia” and deployment 60% of U.S. forces without creating effective action to protect its allies.

Russia has learned to exploit the fact that the Middle East and North Africa has three principle exports. The useful one is petroleum. The other two exports are conspiracy theories, and responsibility for their own mistakes. Like many in the Arab world, they now conveniently ignore the damage Saddam did to Iraq over decades and Maliki’s critical role in empowering ISIS. They ignore Assad’s failures before and after 2011, and the reality that most Syrian civil refugees and casualties are the result of Assad’s forces and not ISIS. Russia claims that they are now the key threat to ISIS, but actually launch air strikes to attack other Arab rebel movements.

Many elsewhere in the developing world echo some form of these messages. Senior Pakistani officials and retirees blame the United States for the Taliban, sometimes for creating ISIS, and often for abandoning Pakistan – while conveniently ignoring Pakistan’s decades of misgovernment, provision of sanctuary to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, actions as a key sponsor of terrorism in attacks on India, and responsibility for the blood that Pakistani forces now pay for their government’s creation of such movements. Other such critics simply repeat variations on the theme that the United States is responsible for their particular set of problems because the United States could somehow deal with every regional problem or crisis on its own if it only wanted to.

In fairness to China, it seems more bemused by the passive character of the U.S. response, and more concerned with the advantage such criticism provides to China’s own interests than a sponsor of such arguments. If anything, at least some Chinese are concerned that the United States in growing weak before China is ready.

The fact remains, however, that China is an emerging power that to some extent competes with the United States, and some Chinese are more than happy to let Russia and other criticisms indirectly serve China’s interests by making it seem stronger and safer option by comparison. Certainly, it is difficult for smaller Asian states to speak too clearly in their own interests when it comes to issues like the South China Sea, when the United States does not speak clearly and consistently for itself.

With Friends Like Ourselves, Who Needs Enemies?

Both the “King Stork” and “King Log” views of America are unfair and neither is completely accurate, and the Russian “color revolutions” argument is dishonest to the point where it is little more than a national disgrace. Both views, however, have enough elements of truth and half-truth to have a growing influence and a steadily rising cumulative impact. They also are having that impact in parts of the world where conspiracy theories play all too critical a role in assessments of power and motive, which rarely take responsibility for their own mistakes and faults, which see history as largely a form of ideology, and judge power more in terms of success than responsible action.

They are also views where it is easy to take valid American criticism of the United States out of context, and where America’s increasingly bitter and negative political partisanship helps spread the image of a weak and declining country overseas in spite of America’s relatively strong economic recovery and still decisive military strength. They are views whose impact will keep growing as long as the he United States is far too passive in aggressively rebutting such charges, and lets Russia and its most extreme critics dominate key elements of the media as well as international conferences and strategic studies meetings in parts of the developing world.

At one recent meeting, a senior European diplomat asked me why the United States was not officially represented and rebutting the views of its Russian and other critics. It is not a question I can answer, but I do find the U.S. embassies are far too passive, seem to rely far too much on high-level meetings, and sometimes operate under security constraints that make it difficult to aggressively reach out to a wide range of audiences in the field.

Americans also sometimes seem to have trouble in making frank and balanced comments. Diplomacy does not consist of being polite and passive or acting like an official parrot and speaking so defensively that that end result – like so much of official U.S. public relations – is to breed little more than distrust. It also does not consist of shallow, topical, social networking – important as that can be. It requires substance, buck up, “fact sheets” and serious effort – something that far too often is missing from official U.S. web pages – particularly in translation.

It also, however, requires high-level attention by the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense – as well as a central focus that has been lacking since USIA lost its independent status. The State Department needs budgets that allow the message to be tailored to given national and regional needs on a global basis and actively disseminated at local levels that can be effective. One key reason for the failure of many current U.S. efforts is the “one message suits all fallacy” and that the most critical efforts come directly from Washington.

The State Department needs larger budgets for simple fixes like outside speakers to make it clear that the U.S. message is not simply propaganda and travel and fellowship funds to help key foreign nationals learn from visits to U.S. officials, universities, and think tanks. The Defense Department and U.S. military commands need the funds to reach out to the military and civilian experts in other countries and fund travel for U.S. experts. The U.S. needs to make each major Department and Embassy a resource that serves as a reference for foreign scholars and media.

The United States needs a Congress that understands that publishing and circulating the right kind of reports is far more important than the absurdity of requiring that their cost be published on the cover the report. It is far better and cheaper to send the right message in peacetime than to deal with the consequences of failing to send it at all.

As for American academics and experts at a private level, as well as American political candidates and members of Congress, private individuals who play a public role need to remember that being frank, honest, and balanced is a critical part of informal diplomacy, and is absolutely critical to U.S. credibility. Integrity serves U.S. and allied interests far better than any of the three alternatives - being too diplomatic and “sensitive,” uncritically defending the United States in spite of its real mistakes, or being critical without providing perspective.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy