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Letter From London | The Nation

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Letter From London

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In Europe, the war began as it did everywhere outside New York and Washington, with pictures on television. From London to Moscow people watched in horror as the terrible sequence played over and over. As long as those hypnotic images held center stage the European response was probably as direct, and elemental, as that of most Americans: grief at the destruction and sympathy for the victims. But even in the first days, there were intimations that this apparent unity was deceptive. In the Dutch farming town of Ede, Moroccan youths took to the streets to proclaim, "Osama is our hero." In Britain, former US ambassador Philip Lader was reduced to tears on the discussion program Question Time by a member of the audience who suggested America had it coming. Mounting public outrage--and potential embarrassment for Tony Blair--forced the BBC to issue an unprecedented public apology. Europe's governments lined up to pledge their solidarity with the American people and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, their support for George Bush's war on terrorism.

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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As the weeks went by, though, Europe and the United States began to follow diverging scripts. The pictures remained the same: file footage of the World Trade Center, mug shots of the suicide bombers, mug shots of Osama bin Laden, pictures of turbaned Northern Alliance fighters and talking heads of state--Bush, Blair, Putin, Chirac, Schröder, General Musharraf. But the soundtracks were no longer in sync. Europe's leaders were backing Bush, but popular support varied from clear majorities in favor of the military campaign in Britain and Germany to majorities opposed in Italy and Greece. Add in the widespread support for a temporary bombing halt during Ramadan, and the way the poll numbers move up and down with every victory or setback on the ground, and it is hard to escape the sense that enthusiasm for the war, even when broad, does not go very deep.

Here in Britain, Ariel Sharon's opportunistic forays into Palestinian territory became a feature of the nightly news. In Holland, Prime Minister Wim Kok made it clear that support for the United States did not mean a blank check. In Rome, thousands took to the streets in an antiwar demonstration organized by veterans of Genoa's antiglobalization protests. Clips from Al Jazeera were regularly shown on TV; so were snippets of bin Laden's video interviews and Taliban tours of civilian buildings reduced to rubble. Across Europe, newspapers were filled with passionate arguments about the war: its aims, its legitimacy, its tactics and, perhaps most of all, its effect on the rest of the world. When the cluster bombs, Daisy Cutters and B-52s appeared on the scene, the "wobble" became palpable enough to worry Tony Blair. Pictures of the prisoners of war massacred at Qala Jangi (including an image of a Northern Alliance soldier wrenching gold teeth from the mouth of a dead Talib) have produced a wave of revulsion at what is being done in the coalition's name.

While Europe has been far more tolerant of dissent, it has also been reluctant to acknowledge how little its opinions matter to the conduct of the war. It was a British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who famously said that power without responsibility was a harlot's privilege. His successor Tony Blair would soon discover that responsibility without power has its perils as well. To Washington, the question of humanitarian aid to the starving Afghans may have never been more than a fig leaf for invasion--and a pretty skimpy fig leaf at that, given Bush's admission that the United States is not much good at nation-building. In Britain, though, we were told that humanitarian aid and reconstruction were what made this not only a just war but a good war. At the recent Labour Party conference Blair struck out for the moral high ground: "The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of North Africa to the slums of Gaza to the mountains of Afghanistan: They too are our cause." Clare Short, the international development secretary, who spoke out against the bombing in the early days, was soon making the case that aid could reach the people of Afghanistan only if the Taliban were ousted--short-circuiting the argument made by many of the war's opponents that a pause before winter was vital to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

Now that the Taliban are almost defeated, the aid issue is becoming more of a thorn in the coalition's flesh. Six thousand British soldiers waiting to fly to Bagram to support relief efforts have been told to stand down--America's priority is hunting down bin Laden, and the Northern Alliance would be irritated by the presence of more British troops. As a Defense Ministry spokesman put it, "We do not want to be faffing about on the humanitarian side." (The snub stung all the more when twelve Russian transport planes landed at the same airfield, as if Bush had ditched Blair so his new best friend could play a bigger role.) Meanwhile, workers from the relief agency Oxfam report that they desperately need protection to carry out their mission.

The fall of Kabul has also reopened a sharper disagreement between US hawks and their European "partners": the remit of the larger "war on terrorism." Bush's threatening gestures toward Saddam Hussein are viewed with almost universal dismay by Europe's social democratic governments. Even Blair has indicated that he could not follow down the road to Baghdad--though Britain's security services have reportedly been working with the CIA in Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, checking out targets for future "stiletto" attacks on Al Qaeda assets. From the beginning, European leaders have argued for limited aims: to disarm Al Qaeda and capture bin Laden if possible; to overthrow the Taliban if necessary; to cut off terrorists' funds and operating space. There is widespread anxiety that anything more will fuel further terror, and a shared assumption that security can only be gained with some attention to the roots of resentment, from poverty to the fate of Palestine. This is a continent that knows war well and has little stomach for "crusades." In spite of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's embarrassing gaffe about the superiority of Western civilization, Europe knows its fate is intimately linked to that of the Islamic world, by proximity, commerce and its 20 million-odd Muslim citizens.

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