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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.

Is America listening? The war has given Europe stark confirmation that Washington calls the shots. "The Americans are walking on water," one European recently back from Gen. Tommy Franks's headquarters told the Observer. "They think they can do anything...and there is bloody nothing Tony can do about it." At the same time, it has pushed Europeans to name their differences from the superpower that keeps them in its shadow. The many forms of opposition to the war make up a sketch map of dissent from American hegemony. At the fringes, there is the vulgar anti-Americanism that holds the United States responsible for every evil. This view is still more prevalent on the left but also has its right-wing adherents--for instance in Greece, where the Orthodox primate described September 11 as "God's judgment" on America. (The complex history of anti-Americanism there makes Greece something of a special case: According to one poll, a third of the population believes that September 11 was masterminded by the CIA, Mossad or one of their shadowy subsidiaries.)

Nearer the center, there is the view that America has a just cause but is likely to wreak havoc in pursuing it--because of its history of cynical interventions, and because of Bush's unilateralism and shoot-from-the-hip stupidity. Many European commentators have pointed to his contempt for all international bodies before September 11, from the International Criminal Court in which bin Laden might have been tried to the Kyoto agreement, which might have helped to wean the West from its dependence on the black stuff. In between is a great gray area, where America's conduct abroad is subject to passionate debate. Immediately after September 11 The London Review of Books ran a roundup of responses from its regular contributors, most of whom discussed America's role in creating the conditions for terrorism. The issue provoked outrage from some US readers; the blizzard of letters that followed desperately tried to parse this new universe, where the empire's enemy is worse than the empire itself, and where sympathy must coexist with skepticism.

The war's outright opponents come from many different political backgrounds, making for an occasionally uncomfortable coalition. Before September 11, the main radical force in Europe was the antiglobalization movement, and in spite of the connections to be drawn with oil and underdevelopment the current crisis has not fit easily into its analytic grid. The old peace movement has come out in force, both in its pacifist and antinuclear forms, arguing for aid, not bombs. Antiracist activists and civil libertarians have had much to talk about. At a "Stop the War" demonstration in London on November 18 (police estimate, 15,000; organizers' estimate, 100,000) all these came together with sizable Muslim contingents from across the country; for the first time ever prayer tents were provided, as well as food for those who wished to break their Ramadan fast at nightfall. The demonstrators seemed unfazed by the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif a few days before, or by concern about what it would mean to leave Afghanistan in the hands of the Northern Alliance.

Europeans also tend to be more skeptical about one-size-fits-all definitions of terrorism. Some Britons have been heard to wonder where this leaves the IRA's friends in the US Congress. Others point to the Northern Ireland peace process, which saw the IRA begin decommissioning its arsenal in October, as an example of what can only be achieved by rejecting violence. More cynically, Spain's Prime Minister José Maria Aznar has signed up for Bush's war in return for the use of American spy satellites to help target Basque ETA separatists. Bush's Texas love feast with Vladimir Putin was widely viewed here as a triumph for the Russian, who gets a free hand in Chechnya and a chance to avenge his country's Vietnam. But nowhere is the divergence of view more evident--and Europe more impotent--than in the Middle East. Blair's thankless sales trip to Syria (where Assad humiliated him in public), Saudi Arabia (where they snubbed him) and Israel (where Sharon, fresh from humbling Britain's foreign secretary, contented himself with ignoring everything Blair said) was supposed to lay the groundwork for American re-engagement with the Israel-Palestine conflict. Bush's evident reluctance even to speak the name "Palestine," followed by Colin Powell's overdue and overcautious advocacy of a state for Palestinians, came as a bitter disappointment. The early December suicide bombings blew the Afghan war off the front pages but have not changed the widely held view that Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is the esential first step to peace.

So far, frustration has not led to dissent. Blair's government remains "shoulder to shoulder" with the Bush Administration (though other anatomical conjunctions have been suggested). France has sent troops, Holland a frigate, Italy an aircraft carrier. Even the Germans have signed up, a Rubicon in that country's postwar history even more astonishing for being crossed at the behest of Joschka Fischer, the radical street fighter turned foreign minister. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder turned a motion on sending troops into a vote of confidence in his government. The Christian Democrats and other pro-war, right-wing parties voted against it, forcing the divided Greens to vote in favor or risk the governing "Red-Green" coalition. At a Green Party conference afterward, Fischer's argument that pacifism was no longer an option carried the day.

Nor have European governments hesitated to embrace the brave new world where security trumps civil liberties. Spain may refuse to extradite Al Qaeda suspects to the United States to face the death penalty, but it also wants to broaden the European definition of terrorism in order to target the legal separatist party in the Basque parliament. France, Britain and Germany are tightening their surveillance of the Internet. Denmark is about to pass draconian restrictions on the rights of immigrants and refugees. British Home Secretary David Blunkett had emergency legislation ready to go before the dust settled on Ground Zero, with the Germans not far behind. Is it mere coincidence that in both these countries questions of immigration and asylum were a focus of public anxiety long before September 11? Probably not.

In the words of one Dutch commentator, the attacks and the war together have "laid wide open the whole debate about a multicultural society." In Britain, tabloids run hysterical spreads about North London's "mad mullahs"; acres of newsprint have been devoted to the handful of British Muslims who supposedly flew off to die for Islam. Liberal commentators have detected "a corrosive national danger in our multicultural model," issuing thinly veiled calls for loyalty tests. Blunkett has found a new weapon for frightening off asylum seekers, proposing a "state of emergency" in order to opt out of part of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, currently stalled in the House of Lords, would allow the indefinite internment of foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities.

As the first Brink's trucks loaded with newly minted Euros trundle down German autobahns and up Greek mountains to a mixture of cheers and jeers, Europe's quarrelsome leaders have found they can at least agree on EU-wide arrest warrants, fast-track extradition and powers to cut off terrorist funds. This sudden unity does not augur well for liberal visions of European integration.

The crisis has also reinforced the European pecking order, though Blair's shuttle diplomacy and closeness to Bush have so increased his authority that he may now be prepared to risk a British referendum on the Euro. Europe's statesmen expend tremendous energy jostling for position, and the war has increased the pressure to be part of the inner circle. Tony Blair's attempt to give an intimate supper à trois at Downing Street to discuss Europe's response to September 11 quickly turned into dinner for eight when Blair, Schröder and France's Jacques Chirac were joined first by a pouting Berlusconi, and then by Aznar, with Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, Javier Solana (the EU's foreign policy representative) and Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok also crashing the party. Kok, the last to arrive, rolled up in the back of a police car.

The intimacy born of crisis does not welcome interlopers. A Europe freshly licensed to tighten its security and clamp down on immigrants is less likely to let in the poorer countries on its borders--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and eastward to the former Yugoslav republics. There, September 11 produced less widely reported aftershocks: Muslims in Bosnia were arrested as suspected terrorists by UN peacekeepers; the US and British embassies in Sarajevo closed for several days; nationalist politicians in Belgrade tried to recast Serbia as a victim of Islamic terrorism; the Macedonian government suddenly spotted bin Laden's men among Albanian rebels.

All over Europe, politicians are using the war to push their own agendas. The question they are not yet asking, at least in public, is what America's renewed ascendancy will mean for the future. Will this hat trick of military victories--the Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan--license America to remove all impediments through aerial bombardment? Will the United States and its bosom buddy Russia pay any attention to Europe's arguments for a security built on more solid foundations than fear? With his eye, as ever, on the main chance, Tony Blair has wasted no time in proposing a Russia-North Atlantic Council, bidding for a role in any formal rapprochement between NATO and its old enemy.

There was a moment when the current crisis seemed as if it might conceal an opportunity--if its own trauma could attune the West more urgently to suffering, if the clamor against America could be heard as a cry for help as well as a call to arms. But the window on the world that opened briefly in September has slammed shut. It seems much harder now to hold out any hope for Europe as a counterweight to America's global dominance. On the Hebridean island of Lewis there are plans to build the world's largest onshore wind-farm, doubling at a stroke Britain's renewable energy capacity. There is comfort in the image of those giant vanes, turning us a little further from the risks of nuclear power and the terrible destruction wrought by oil. Of course, one of the project's leading partners is a US multinational.

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