Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Legend of the Squandered Sympathy

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The Legend of the Squandered Sympathy

In the last two months … we have heard much of the legend of the squandered sympathy. According to this legend, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the US enjoyed the heartfelt sympathy of the world, only to see this capital of goodwill frittered away by the successive faux pas of an inept and arrogant Bush administration and then definitively exhausted by the launching of an illegitimate war on Iraq in defiance of “world public opinion.”

The Democratic National Convention in July already set the tone. In the absence of much else to say on foreign policy matters, speakers at the convention returned to the theme of the squandered sympathy again and again. Jimmy Carter invoked it … Ted Kennedy alluded to it … And the Reverend Al Sharpton … elaborated upon it in characteristically grandiloquent style …

Not surprisingly, John Kerry — who is said to count Anthony Lake and Leon Fuerth among his foreign policy advisors — thinks so too. In the first presidential debate, he twice spoke of President Bush having "pushed away" or "pushed aside" real or potential allies.

Now, that America did not enjoy much sympathy, neither before nor after 9/11, in large sections of the Arab-Islamic world should not require much demonstration. The offensiveness of accusing the Bush Administration of “unilateralism” when citizens of coalition allies have been slaughtered in the most brutal fashion as retribution for their countries’ participation in the Iraq war and reconstruction effort is also sufficiently obvious to any fair-minded person as not to require particular commentary. The March 11 attack in Spain and the more recent threats against Britain, Italy, Australia, Poland, and Bulgaria make clear that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates understand, even if some Democrats apparently do not, that America has not acted alone. …

In short, upon closer inspection, it turns out that “the world” of which the Democrats speak consists, not surprisingly, of just Germany and France and their inner-European satellites such as fractious Belgium and mighty Luxembourg. This makes all the more odd Ted Kennedy’s exhortation to the effect that “we should have strengthened, not scorned, the alliances that won two World Wars and the Cold War.” Has Senator Kennedy forgotten that America fought the two World Wars against Germany?

[An] ad prepared by Win Back Respect contains a similar howler. Titled “History”, it features two WWII veterans, one of whom, Robert O’Kane, notes, “There’s a very divided world about why we’re in Iraq – not like World War II.” When the United States entered the Second World War, it did so in coalition with 25 other states, jointly comprising the so-called “United Nations” (from which the later international organization would take its name). The majority of these, however, consisted either of countries already under German occupation, whose governments-in-exile adhered to the coalition, or small Latin American or Caribbean states, which declared war on Germany and Japan, but never sent troops to any theatre of operations. By D-Day, the number of formal adherents to the coalition had risen to the mid-30s, but the bulk of the fighting continued to be born by the US, the UK and the USSR. The number of countries currently contributing personnel to coalition forces in Iraq is 31. Even leaving aside the historical details, a world war supposed to unite, rather than divide, the world is an obvious contradiction in terms. The ad ends with the second veteran, Charlie Vaughn, concluding, “I don’t think our President has any sense of history.” The shoe is evidently on the other foot. It is President Bush’s opponent’s who do not have any sense of history — or logic, for that matter.

Were We All Americans?

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, countless private individuals in western Europe undoubtedly felt sympathy with the victims and many saw fit to express it in small symbolic acts, such as the laying of flowers before the American embassy in Paris. Given the horror of the attacks, such reactions were, so to say, only human. What was more unusual and hence noteworthy, however, was that at the same time the attacks seemed to elicit from the very start a sort of paroxysm of — as an Austrian friend of mine aptly put it — anti-American “ventilating”. In the major media, moreover, the expressions of hatred and contempt for America quickly came to eclipse those of sympathy. An especially conspicuous case in point is provided by the influential French daily Le Monde.

This is ironic, since the legend of the squandered sympathy draws much of its inspiration and seeming plausibility from the headline of the front-page editorial that ran in Le Monde the day after the attacks: “We Are All Americans”. An article that appeared in the New York Times one year later made allusion to this seemingly well-intended, if rather bizarre, affirmation, only then to note that “the same writer” who coined it, Jean-Marie Colombani, had in the meanwhile ascertained that the solidarity it was supposed to express had been largely dissipated. It even seemed to Mr. Colombani that just a year on “we have all become anti-American” (New York Times, September 12, 2002). [I.e., before the Iraq war was even decided upon!]

Various factors were offered to explain this remarkable and remarkably universal change of heart, all of which have since gained pride of place in the standard version of the legend. … some weeks later (October 2, 2002), Thomas Friedman published an op-ed piece in which he describes putting in a personal call to Alain Frachon, who Friedman incorrectly identifies as “the senior editor” of Le Monde, in order to find out first-hand “how his paper was viewing America”. Confirming his own perspicacity, Friedman was able to report that solicitude for America was indeed yielding to hostility and that even the “columnist” who penned the “all Americans” article now only considered himself American some of the time. …

Since attention was first called to it in the Times, the title of Colombani’s post-9/11 editorial has been widely cited in the rest of the American media and on the Internet. Its content, however, has been largely ignored. … Thus are legends born. For the solidarity ostentatiously displayed in the title of Colombani’s editorial is in fact massively belied by the details of the text itself [emphasis ours]. By the fifth paragraph, for example, Colombani is offering his general reflections on the geo-political conditions which he supposes provoked the attacks: “The reality is surely that of a world without a counterbalance, physically destabilized and thus dangerous in the absence of a multi-polar equilibrium. And America, in the solitude of its power, of its hyper-power,...has ceased to draw the peoples of the globe to it; or, more exactly, in certain parts of the globe, it seems no longer to attract anything but hatred....And perhaps even we ourselves in Europe, from the Gulf War to the use of F16s against Palestinians by the Israeli Army, have underestimated the hatred which, from the outskirts of Jakarta to those of Durban, by way of the rejoicing crowds of Nablus and of Cairo, is focused on the United States.” The last sentence is grammatically no more coherent in the French original than in English. But it amounted to the first, albeit awkward, suggestion in the French press that America had perhaps merely got what it had coming. In the following paragraph, Colombani went on to add that perhaps too “the reality” was that America had been “trapped by its own cynicism,” noting that Bin Laden himself had, after all, been “trained by the CIA”: a never substantiated charge that has, of course, in the meanwhile become chapter and verse for the blame-America-firsters. “Couldn’t it be, then,” Colombani concluded, “that America gave birth to this devil?”

For anyone who was a regular reader of Le Monde in the summer of 2001, to find such sentiments expressed in its pages will have come as no surprise. What came as a surprise was to find Jean-Marie Colombani suddenly counting himself, as well apparently as all the French if not indeed all the world, somehow part of a nation that his paper made a habitual practice of vilifying. Indeed, the very expression “the Americans” has long been used in Le Monde as a metonym to speak, for instance, of the American government or American corporations, thus suggesting, given the normally accusatory context, a sort of collective national guilt. In the weeks leading up to the 9/11 attacks, Le Monde had embarked on what seemed like a veritable campaign of incitement against the United States, complete with editorial cartoons on an almost daily basis that would not have been out of place in the most rabidly anti-American specimens of the Arab press. …

The 9/11 attacks did nothing to curb this onslaught. On the contrary, they only seemed to inflect the rising curve of animosity more sharply upwards. In the weeks and months that followed, Le Monde would return with mind-numbing regularity to the theme of American guilt in connection with 9/11, typically leaving it to third-parties to say openly in its pages what its publisher in his “All Americans” piece had merely insinuated or stated as conjecture. The authors of these testimonials ranged all the way from “shaken” New-Yorkers … to supposedly “moderate” Islamists. … The dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are only ‘the most recent victims’ of an American power, which, ‘notably in Palestine’, crushes Muslims. ‘Globalization has a face and an address: the United States’”. And so on, mixing – in a journalistic style typical for Le Monde – the author’s words and the subject’s to create the illusion of a common sense obviousness from which no right-thinking person could possibly differ: what more critically-minded French observers have dubbed “la bien-pensance.”

Such was the tenor of Le Monde’s coverage, in effect, just one week after the attacks. The monotonous drone of denunciations continued as the prospect of a military strike against Afghanistan materialized in the weeks ahead, with distraught “New York Jews,” Pashtun warlords and the estranged son of the “O’Dea,” the archetypal all-American family, all chiming in to register their protest and all sounding surprisingly like “third-worldist” Parisian intellectuals – or even indeed like the publisher of Le Monde. (Among other things, the legend of the squandered sympathy occludes the fact that even while a substantial majority of Europeans polled, including in France and Germany, showed spontaneous understanding for American military actions in Afghanistan, large swaths of Europe’s socialist and social-democratic intelligentsia opposed any American military response to the 9/11 attacks whatsoever.) The “boomerang” image went on to become the favored heuristic device of Le Monde and its affiliated publications in their treatment of 9/11. Thus the first issue of the monthly Monde Diplomatique to appear following the events bore the thematic headline “Boomerang Effect” [it also has an article by Maureen Dowd]. In a pictorial variation on the same theme, a special insert in Le Monde itself featured a cartoon depicting a little wind-up Taliban doll, “Made in USA” emblazoned across its back, carrying red, white and blue explosives and circling back toward Uncle Sam.

It was likewise in the pages of Le Monde, and again just one week after the attacks, that the fevered suspicions which would later propel the success of lunatic left best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic first found their way into print: No, the attacks were not merely a comprehensible, perhaps then even legitimate, response to US domination around the world. The attacks were in fact the work of “the Americans” — the ubiquitous Americans — themselves! In an op-ed piece titled “I Don’t Feel American”, one Marie-José Mondzain of France’s prestigious National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) offered up a delirious brew of truths, half-truths, confusions, and pure fantasies, all seemingly conspiring, by way of some dizzying logical leaps, toward the conclusion that the U.S. government had itself sponsored the hijackers. …

In this connection as well, incidentally, the New York Times managed to miss the story, even indeed obscure it, while ostensibly reporting the story. The Times mentioned Mme. Mondzain’s piece in an article published on September 22 under the title “In Europe, Some Critics Say the Attacks Stemmed From American Failings”. It neglected, however, to note that the gist of Mme. Mondzain’s piece was not that the attacks “stemmed from American failings”, but that, in effect, America did it. Whether this was the result of mere incompetence or a conscious editorial decision to shield American sensibilities from the extremes of French fury, only the reporter and his editor can know for sure. But it should be noted that the Times piece also misidentifies Mondzain … Such lapses suggest that the New York Times’s reporters lack the requisite linguistic skills and/or cultural familiarity to report accurately even on a country as generally accessible to Americans as France – a possibility which should give us profound cause to pause concerning the accuracy of their dispatches from more exotic venues. And where real knowledge is lacking, ideological "intuitions" can no doubt be expected to fill the void.

“Europe’s Catastrophe”

On the whole, the initial response to the attacks in the German media was more subdued and less equivocal than that in the French media. It was notable, however, and a sign of things to come that the German press very quickly and almost universally adopted words invoking retaliation [Vergeltung] or even revenge [Rache] to describe prospective American military action, thus tacitly dismissing in advance the legal justification for such action, viz. security and legitimate defense. Within just a few months, the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit had begun to play much the same role as respectable “ventilator” of anti-American ressentiments in Germany as Le Monde was playing in France. …

Eschewing the [common] “Hitler” allusion for classical mythology, [the fashionable Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek] made the downright hallucinatory suggestion that America’s response to 9/11 amounted to nothing less than a new “rape of Europa.” This was apparently supposed to be because “the Europeans” had not been able to prevent the attack on Afghanistan, nor impose “their” solution to the Mideast crisis. “The true political-ideological catastrophe of September 11 is in fact Europe’s catastrophe,” Zizek wrote, thus apparently placing European hurt-feelings above the dead and wounded of America, or even indeed Afghanistan, in the scale of human calamities. “It is not the resistance of the Third World against American imperialism,” he concluded, “but only united Europe that is able to stand up to the world powers, the USA and China. The left should therefore without hesitation make its own the motto of a united Europe as a counter-power [sic.] to Americanized Globalism.”

The co-publisher of Die Zeit is, incidentally, Michael Naumann, formerly Minister of Culture in the Schröder government. … Given this context, the seemingly off-the-cuff remarks made a few months after Bush’s Berlin visit by then German Minister of Justice, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, comparing the President’s threats of military action against Iraq to the war-mongering of an Adolf Hitler, should not have come as any surprise. Following the narrow re-election of his “red-green” coalition, Gerhard Schröder quickly let it be known that Frau Däubler-Gmelin would not form part of his new government … however … there is reason to believe that these comments were not so unstudied as has generally been assumed: that, in effect, Frau Däubler-Gmelin may have taken one for the team. …

The Iraq War and European Anti-Americanism

It should be noted that the examples I have here cited come essentially from the first few months after the 9/11 attacks through the middle of May 2002, i.e. before even just the diplomatic mobilization for the Iraq war, let alone the military mobilization, had begun. They are drawn, moreover, from the two newspapers that arguably have the most powerful influence on the formation of “mainstream,” ostensibly educated, opinion in France and Germany respectively. They are not drawn from the fringes. This suggests that there is indeed a relationship between the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and rampant anti-Americanism in the Franco-German “core” of Europe. It is not, however, the relationship that is customarily supposed. It was not the nature of Bush’s policy that provoked the anti-American rage; it was rather the daily dosage of anti-American conditioning in the French and German media that predisposed the more susceptible sections of the public to assume nefarious motives behind a policy whose rationale in light of 12 years of Security Council Resolutions on Iraq and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was reasonably straightforward and obvious. For someone who imaginatively associated America with death’s heads, dollar signs and globes dripping in blood or who believed George W. Bush was the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler — a notion which implies, incidentally, that roughly half of the American electorate are Nazis — it was certainly not a great leap to believe that America invaded Iraq to control Iraqi oil rather than to neutralize a security threat. The fact of the matter is that a public systematically nourished on such phantasms was not by and large going to support Bush’s Iraq policy NO MATTER WHAT.

The conduits by which these European phantasms have in the intervening years managed to infiltrate the political debate in the US as well is a subject deserving attention in its own right.

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