This Gallup poll on the identity of America’s “greatest enemy” got fairly good press coverage when it was released in late March, but there’s a lot of food for thought in it that is worth addressing even if we’re a couple of weeks on from the headlines themselves. First, it’s not shocking to see Iran, America’s multi-decade bête noire, at the head of the list. The U.S. government has done a serviceable job of heightening the perceived threat from that country over the past few years, and the dark hand of Iran is increasingly being pointed to as an explanation for continuing stagnation and violence in Iraq (see Gen. David Petraeus’s testimony to Congress on April 8 and 9). Iran was the first choice of 25% of respondents, a proportion which is certainly high, but nowhere near as high as Iraq’s 2001 market share of 38%.
Ironically, it’s likely that Iran would be hitting similar numbers today if it wasn’t for vote-splitting caused by Iraq’s continued strong showing on the greatest enemies list (Iraq is second, with 22% of the vote). One has to ask: which Iraq are these respondents thinking of? Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which vanished on April 9, 2003? The Iraq of “al Qaeda” and the Sunni insurgency? Or the Iraq of Nouri Kamel Al-Maliki, whose country has agreed to negotiate a “long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship” with the United States? Iraq was invaded and fully occupied by U.S. troops, its government deposed, jailed, and then reconstructed from the ground up by U.S. administrators and diplomats. Is there no way for a country to get off this list?
Perhaps not; China’s profile is just as long-tenured. Though recently promoted from fourth place to third, its 14% marks a return to China’s pre-9/11 levels when it was “greatest enemy #2″ — and when poor Iran languished in third place with a mere 8% of the vote.
What does having a “greatest enemy” mean, anyway? One conjures up an image of a country marked in black on the map, a nation working assiduously towards the downfall of your own. But few “enemies” today meet this test. Is Iran really working to destroy the United States? Was Serbia an “enemy” of the United States when the U.S. Air Force bombed it for 78 days straight? Is China planning to invade California? To a great extent, most of these “enemies” are at most rivals or competitors for geostrategic influence, or, more commonly, are regional opponents of U.S. policy. As Jonathan Schwartz recently pointed out, the U.S. may consider a country an enemy if it simply develops the capacity to “deter” the use of U.S. military power and is not already safely integrated into the American alliance system. At a more populist level, Gallup speculates that it may be Chinese economic power that gets China listed consistently as an enemy (since “more Americans [name] China rather than the United States as the world’s leading economic power”) — so it may be that offering Americans cheaper goods is enough to get you on the greatest enemies list. Touchy people, these freedom-lovers.
In hindsight, the Cold War may prove to have been the most politically destructive historical experience ever to visit itself on the American nation, for it seems to have bequeathed modern America with not only a permanent military-industrial complex and a national security state which grows larger and more intrusive with every passing year, but also with an elite mentality that finds the concept of having an ever-present enemy both natural and indeed almost comforting. From a fast-growing nineteenth-century power frankly suspicious of foreign entanglements and jealous of its independence of action, the United States has evolved into a creature with an ego that can only feel validated if it is beset by opponents who, to take a well-worn phrase, “hate us for what we are” – the psychological key, of course, residing in the second half of that phrase.
One bright point in the poll: after reaching a high of 2% in 2005, France must now be breathing a collective sigh of relief at having sunk beneath 0.5%. Pakistan, on the other hand, has now reached 2%, up from 0% in 2001. That country may wish to take some active steps to reduce this percentage rather than waiting for it to decline – à la France – on its own. After all, North Korea was at a near-invisible 2% in 2001, but in only four short years had risen to 22%, a profile that made it America’s co-greatest enemy in 2005 — right up there with, um, occupied Iraq.