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USA Oui! Bush Non! | The Nation

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USA Oui! Bush Non!

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Even though the alleged outbreak of a new anti-Americanism turns out to be a kind of journalistic mirage, the differences in the worldviews of European and US elites could still create enough friction to cause an explosion. The globalization of economic, environmental and security issues is making it more and more difficult for Europe to defend its welfare state against US efforts to impose its model on the rest of the democratic world. In its enormously controversial National Security Strategy, the Bush Administration proclaimed that the United States stood for "a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise." In other words: World, it's our way or the highway.

Eric Alterman would like to thank the Investigative Fund of
the Nation Institute and the German Marshall Fund (US) for their
financial support of his research in Europe.

CORRECTION: Alessandro Portelli is
the correct name of the professor of American literature at the
University of Rome. Jürgen Habermas is, of course, a philosopher of
the Frankfurt School (as Alterman originally wrote), who is also
affiliated with Frankfurt University.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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What has so far prevented a Euro-American break over Iraq has not been the Bush Administration's respect for the views of its allies but its fear of a backlash at home. It seems likely that the only reason the Bush Administration even went near the Security Council before deciding to invade Iraq was because polls kept telling it that a UN endorsement was necessary for majority support. According to the German Marshall Fund survey, well over 60 percent of Americans questioned last autumn believed that a US invasion of Iraq would be justified only if approved by the UN, and 61 percent of Americans agreed that the most important lesson is that the United States needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism. The Bush team was fully briefed on the results of the survey two days before the UN speech, and changed its language accordingly. They almost certainly were not caving in to French or Russian demands in order to reaffirm the integrity of the Security Council, as many of them give every impression of wishing it would just go away.

But even this is a tricky issue. This President presumably knows, like every President before him, that you can take America to war no matter what people think of the idea in advance, and they will support you, at least until something goes wrong. Bush & Co. were not willing to take that risk on Iraq, but they might somewhere else. What's more, war is a particularly high-profile issue and possibly unique. The Bush Administration was able to thumb its collective nose at Europe (and most of the world) regarding Kyoto, the ICC, the ABM and CBW conventions, etc., and it paid no domestic price whatsoever, despite the fact that most of these treaties and agreements enjoyed either majority or plurality support at home. The sad fact is that most Americans do not care enough about foreign policy to make their views matter to elites, and elites are more than happy to keep it that way. They may care more about global warming, international cooperation and multilateral intervention than Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Perle, but they don't vote on the issue. Hence, their concerns don't, in any material sense, really matter.

Alessandro Martelli, a professor of American literature at the University of Rome, told me that in the wake of 9/11 many Europeans yearned to see Americans develop some empathy for the suffering of the rest of the world as a result of their own tragic experience. "You can hear this in The Rising," explains Martelli, who is one of Italy's resident Springsteen experts, "as Bruce looks beyond the boundaries of the United States with moral courage and intelligence. But instead of Bruce we have Bush. And the dominant rhetoric has been of the exceptionalism of American sorrow."

Similarly, when the war in Afghanistan began, Europeans hoped that war there "would turn the Bush Administration toward greater multilateralism," as the editors of The Economist put it. Once again, it appears to have done just the opposite. Jacques Rupnik characterizes the American attitude this way: "We decide what is good and we decide what is evil. If Europe wants to follow us, fine; if not, too bad for them."

It's hard to argue that the Europeans are exaggerating. In May 2002 Colin Powell, speaking at an Air Force base in Rome, let the cat out of the bag on Bush's definition of multilateral negotiation: "He tries to persuade others why that is the correct position. When it does not work, then we will take the position we believe is correct." The "correct" position as enunciated by Bush is one of never-ending war based on the US definition of who is a friend and who is a "terrorist." Lest this sound like hyperbole, consider the following statement: "Our war with terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end...until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." And what if America ends up alienating the entire world in the process? "At some point, we may be the only ones left," Bush told his closest advisers, according to an Administration member who leaked the story to Bob Woodward. "That's OK with me. We are America."

Virtually across the board, Europeans find this attitude dangerous, childish and ultimately counterproductive. Rupnik allows that "if terrorism were a state, and you could just flatten state X or Y and solve the problem, Europeans might say perhaps there's something in it." But as Spanish journalist Miguel Angel Aguilar, who helped found El País and now runs the Association for European Journalists in Madrid, explains, it is an enemy "against which sheer military might is not going to help you." Spain, he notes, has fought a home-grown terrorist movement for thirty years. "Using the army turned out to be a disaster," Aguilar observes. "We were trying to kill mosquitoes with bombs. Innocents were killed and democracy suffered and we were no safer."

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