Current US charges of Arab ingratitude reflect a debate from the past, when Samuel Johnson denounced Americans as ungrateful for failing to recognise Britain's role in their liberation
'Ungrateful' Arabs? History shows Americans were, too
Why are Americans so ungrateful? As the spring of 1775 turned to summer, the great English essayist Samuel Johnson pondered this question. It had been more than a decade since the end of the French and Indian War, a long, bloody conflict that Britain had fought to save America from French rule.
The British, he wrote in his pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny, "begin to think it reasonable that they who flourish under the protection of our government should contribute something toward its expense".
The French and Indian War had been expensive. Britain, then ruling its colonies in eastern North America, had fought the war practically single-handedly. Though their lives and homes were at stake, Americans had barely participated: no army was raised by Americans to defend themselves. It was British officers and the British army who crossed the Atlantic to defend the American colonies on American soil, aided only by some American militiamen. When, having secured their freedom at an enormous price, the British asked the colonies to pay some of the debt in the form of taxes, Americans revolted.
Johnson wrote: "[A] war by which none but themselves were gainers, all that they can boast is that they did something for themselves, and did not wholly stand inactive, while the sons of Britain were fighting in their cause." A year after Johnson wrote his pamphlet America issued its Declaration of Independence.
In the wake of recent protests around the Arab region and the wider world, similar sentiments are being expressed in America about the Arabs. Why, so the argument runs, aren't they more grateful? Wasn't it, after all, the United States that freed Egypt and Libya from their despotic rulers?
This is an updated version of an argument that has surfaced repeatedly since the invasion of Iraq. Echoing Johnson's criticisms of Americans, right-wing commentators would ask why Iraqis were not more grateful for their "liberation", which had come at the cost of American lives.
Charges of ingratitude rest on several misunderstandings, the chief one being that a handful of protesters represent a whole country, or that protests in some countries represent the region or even an entire religion.
Indeed, this blindness looks both ways. The odd, badly dubbed film that spuriously sparked these protests was not the work of America as a state, merely the work of one American. That nation's representative, the US president, condemned it nonetheless. Ditto the death of the US ambassador to Libya: his murder was the work of individuals. Ordinary Libyans publicly mourned his death and Libya's political representatives apologised.
All of this is the reality of a turbulent relationship between two large, complex regions. Just as Americans need to understand Arabs, Arabs need to do the same for Americans. Charges of malicious intent by America are too easily believed in the region, and the beneficial uses of US military might (as in Libya) are too easily dismissed by reference to the negative (Iraq). The caricatures of extremists are tempting: if America is not the cesspit suggested by Salafists, the Middle East is not the cauldron painted by neocons.
Wider than that, though, is the fundamental misconception of history that suggests Arabs ought to be grateful for America's wars. The people of the Middle East understand, in the clearest possible way, that America did not fight those wars for them. When America fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, or before that in Lebanon, it fought on the soil of those countries but over the heads of the populace. America fights first for America's interests.
During the long years of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule in Iraq, the Americans never felt the need to "liberate" Iraqis. Indeed, it was America which assisted Saddam in his war against Iran.
Nor, for decades, was there any talk of liberating Egyptians from the tyranny of Hosni Mubarak. Quite the contrary: every political gambit was tried to keep him in place, until, with their blood and their souls, Egyptians pushed Mubarak out.
Arabs in the modern Middle East understand the same thing about America that Americans in the 18th century understood about Britain: the wars on their territory are about cold, raw power.
When Britain fought France in her long wars before America's independence, it did so for Britain alone. Cuddly talk of values and liberation - as used then by the British, as used now by the Americans - is hogwash. To answer Johnson, Americans in the 18th century would have pointed out they had nothing much to be grateful for. Britain was heavily taxing the colonies without allowing political representation because they did not believe America should decide its own destiny. Arabs today feel the same.
Even events that seem inexplicable become clearer in the light of historical context: Americans raised no army to fight the French not because they were cowards (as one British officer of the time put it) but because Britain's government had resisted an American request to do so. Britain was concerned that allowing Americans the freedom to raise and lead their own army would threaten its rule in the colonies. It was right. Johnson, when he reflected on the supposed ingratitude of Americans, ought to have remembered that freedom maintained by the guns of another is hardly freedom at all.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai