Wednesday, September 06, 2006

9/11 aftermath

How sympathy soured

Gerard Baker

The Times 6 Sept 2006

Support for America after 9/11 swiftly turned to anger at its foreign policy. Today the superpower is chastened - but we must hope that it will not stop trying to remake the world

A couple of days after 9/11 I happened to be in London, stranded on my way back to Washington from a spectacularly ill-timed trip to Asia. As I walked from my hotel that morning, still struggling, like everyone, to take in the full dimensions of what had happened, I noticed a blizzard of posters.
On almost every street lamp and available piece of wall were hastily printed sheets of A4 paper, bearing in bold lettering a simple request: “Please observe three minutes’ silence at 12 noon today in memory of those who lost their lives in the awful events in New York and Washington on Tuesday.”

I have no idea to this day who had posted the flyers — hundreds of them, all along the South Bank. To a cynic, I suppose, it might have been a devilishly clever ploy by the CIA to build support quickly for the US in world opinion. Or perhaps it was some desolate band of American tourists or City workers seeking to elicit sympathy from friendly hosts. But it looked much more like the simple, hurried work of ordinary Londoners, spontaneous and genuine.
That someone should go to the trouble of typing such a plea, printing all those flyers, then walking through Central London sticking them to lampposts and walls, struck me then as a remarkable gesture of human empathy, as poignant and profound in its way as Le Monde’s “We are all Americans now” headline or Buckingham Palace’s decision to have the band of the Household Cavalry play The Star-Spangled Banner.
Indeed, the flimsy bills were actually more heart-rending than those more famous expressions of condolence. This was not the work of a newspaper editor with an eye to posterity or some government official with a felicitous PR touch, but the ingenuous response of a distressed citizen to the unimaginable heartbreak that had unfolded over the previous 48 hours.
The intense little gesture captured, in fact, the mood in most of Britain, Europe and what we like to call the civilised world that September day five years ago.
For all its geopolitical ramifications, 9/11 evoked principally, at the time, the rawest of emotions at a fellow human’s plight. What eyes didn’t weep at the sight of those wretched figures leaping to their deaths? What stomach didn’t churn at the thought of those helpless pilots as their throats were slit in their cabins? What heart didn’t lift a little at the story of the desperate passengers on United Flight 93, fighting back against the monstrous aliens violently wresting control of their doomed lives?
The rest of the world has always had a complex set of attitudes towards America — a mixture of envy, admiration, disdain, gratitude, exasperation, hope and, sometimes, fear. But that day, that week, America evoked only the sort of strenuous affection that causes a complete stranger to go out and stick bills on lampposts.
But that instantaneous solidarity with a stricken superpower was not, as it turned out, anything like a good predictor of the history that would unfold over the next half a decade.
As it prepares to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the attacks, America stands reviled in the world as never before. It is a remarkable turnabout. In the same amount of time that elapsed between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the Treaty of Versailles, in as many months as passed between Germany’s invasion of Poland and D-Day, the US has gone from innocent victim of unimaginable villainy to principal perpetrator of global suffering.
So complete has been this transformation in global sentiment that it is inconceivable now, should America be attacked again, today, that the tragedy would elicit the same response. There would be horror and sympathy in good measure, certainly, from most decent people. But there would also be much Schadenfreude, and even from the sympathetic a grim, unsmiling sense that America had reaped what it had sown.
The facts — the historical events — that have brought about this changed perception of America are not in dispute. They can be tracked chronologically, almost from the moment the twin towers came down.
Sympathy for a grieving America translated quickly into general support for the US war against the Taleban. But within a few weeks that support began to drain, as civilian casualties mounted and some questioned whether the US was doing enough to address the “root causes” of terrorism, in particular the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Then, in the view of most of the world, the US took a terrible detour: from the high road of regime change against the perpetrators and enablers of 9/11, the US descended into the thickets of Guantanamo, the “axis of evil”, pre-emptive war without UN authorisation, the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and the quagmire of Baghdad today.
The US and its dwindling ranks of supporters elsewhere, led by Tony Blair in Britain, argued that 9/11 required a change in the way that America reacted with the world. The threat of Islamist terrorism, conducted by suicide bombers whose goals were nothing less than the destruction of the West and the return of the Caliphate, required something radically new. Armed potentially with weapons that could kill millions, these death-glorifying terrorists presented a wholly different challenge from the threat of the Cold War, and therefore required a much more assertive approach to the international system, led by the US.
But this argument failed to persuade much of world opinion, especially when Iraq, designated the most immediate threat, turned out to have been something of a paper tiger. Instead, the rest of the world simply saw an arrogant bully blundering into the Middle East and stoking the fire under the very terrorism that it had pledged to extinguish.
For some time after September 11, many US critics distinguished between anti-Bush and anti-American sentiment. It was possible to argue that US actions after 9/11 did not reflect any deep national shift in strategic direction but were simply the result of decisions made by an unrepresentative leadership which had, some insisted, “stolen” the election in 2000. There had always been a hard-core right wing in America that distrusted the UN and believed in the aggressive assertion of US power. Given that foreign policy had played virtually no role in the 2000 election, and given how close it had been, perhaps the post-9/11 America would prove to be just a transient moment.
But after President Bush’s narrow but decisive election triumph in November 2004 that became less plausible. Americans had been given a chance to pass judgment on their leadership in the early years of the post-9/11 world. In John Kerry they had been presented with a candidate who explicitly articulated the critique of the rest of the world (He spoke French! He was clever! He liked the UN!) After 2004, confronted with the reality that President Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld really were the representative leaders of America, the rest of the world formed an alternative impression of the US — that 9/11 had, in fact, induced a dramatic change in the psychology of the nation. A nation that had not been attacked on its own soil in 60 years had overreacted and, through a combination of government lies and a complaisant media, had turned its back on co-operation with the world.

Conspiracy theories became even more popular. The US or its ally, Israel, was behind the 9/11 attacks precisely so that America could strike at its enemies in a broader clash of civilisations and battle for control of Middle Eastern oil resources. Even saner types who did not believe such fantasies still think that the US is a bigger danger to world peace than almost any other country in the world.

Far from driving us together in the face of a common threat, the events of September 11 have ripped the West apart. Now, the world’s distrust of and disdain for America borders on pathology. It doesn’t stop at opposition to US policies but seeks deeper explanations for American behaviour in society, economics and culture.
America is a country of religious zealots, it is said, typified by its president-zealot; a selfish and hypocritical people despoiling the planet even as they exalt their nationhood in their mega-churches. Its impact on the world is denounced not just for what its military does but for what its companies and workers do, from Exxon Mobil to McDonald’s.
When Rupert Everett described Starbucks as a “cancer” last month in a campaign to stop the coffee chain from opening a shop in his London neighbourhood, it seemed to reflect not just a rebellion against the vast anonymity of globalisation but a rejection of everything for which America is despised.
But global warming, religious observance, McDonald’s and even Starbucks were features of the US long before 9/11. In the end, deep as the cultural differences between Europe and America are, there is little doubt that it is the policies — the military and diplomatic stance of the US in the past five years — that have caused the rest of the world to turn away from its traditional ally.
If the 2004 election seemed to confirm that the world is ill at ease with America, it has since become clear that Americans themselves appear to be profoundly ill at ease with their country. The setbacks in Iraq in the past two years, compounded by the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the Government’s inadequate response to it, have cast a pall over Americans’ self-image.
Immediately after 9/11, more than 80 per cent of Americans told pollsters that they believed their country was on the right track. As US forces fought their way to Kabul, the figure was above 70 per cent. In the early days of the Iraq War, even after some setbacks, it was more than 60 per cent.
Five years later, though, it is not just Europeans or British who think that the US is misguided. Since last summer the proportion of Americans who believe that their country is on the right track has been about 25 per cent. More than 60 per cent say that the US is heading in the wrong direction. Majorities now believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake and that US policy has made the world less safe. President Bush’s approval rating among Americans is now below 40 per cent. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld score in the twenties.
As the nation’s mood has soured, Americans’ willingness to follow their administration’s leadership in other aspects of policy has dissipated. Senators, including most Republicans, late last year voted overwhelmingly to force the Bush Administration formally to forswear torture as a tool of US detention techniques. The courts have upheld the rights of detainees at Guantanamo to proper legal procedures. A jury in Virginia even declined to award the death penalty to Zaccarias Moussaoui, one of the most notorious terrorists in the US. In short, it seems to some that Americans are converging once again with the rest of the West’s views on how to handle the War on Terror and international relations in general.
It is doubtful that Americans will stop going to church any time soon, or develop an aversion to Starbucks and McDonald’s. But is it possible that the America that has so scared the world these past five years is unravelling? Will the last half-decade turn out to be some awful nightmare from which America and the world are about to wake? To some extent — and barely noticed in much of the world — there is already a chastened, more co-operative US.
Iran is the most notable example. Under Condoleezza Rice’s State Department’s leadership, the US has agreed to go along with the European Union’s softly-softly approach to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Some have even pronounced the death of the “Bush doctrine”. Philip Gordon, a former Clinton Administration official, wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs this month: “If the rhetoric of the Bush revolution lives on, the revolution itself is over. The question is not whether the President and most of his team still hold to the basic tenets of the Bush doctrine — they do — but whether they can sustain it. They cannot.”
But before the rest of the world starts pulling down metaphorical statues of President Bush and declaring the end of the tyranny, it should ponder what may come next in America’s relationship with the world. A chastened Bush team does not necessarily mean that America is ready to embrace the world again on the world’s terms. For one thing, there is a nasty strain of isolationism building in America at the moment. If you thought that ideological unilateralism was unpleasant, wait till you get a look at populist isolationism.
A growing number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, are now behind moves to get the US to pull out of Iraq — so far, so good, you might think. But many on the Left want to disengage America completely: “Bring the troops home,” is the cry, “and keep them there.” And on the Right, a new posse of “To Hell With Them” hawks seems to have decided that the US should abandon its ambitious plans to remake the world and stay home, rolling down the portcullis and venturing out only occasionally to whack recalcitrant regimes.
There is an ugly anti-foreigner mood in parts of the US political debate that smacks of the ruinous isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s. To see it in action, tune in to CNN any evening at 6pm New York time. There, on what used to be a news programme, the angry anchor Lou Dobbs lashes out at illegal immigrants, foreign companies destroying US jobs and US companies shipping their operations overseas. In an otherwise bleak broadcasting landscape for CNN, it is the only programme piling on viewers.
Earlier this year, Democrats led a campaign against the takeover of American ports from P&O by the Dubai Ports World Company, and they want to rewrite the rules of foreign investment in a way that would impair the ability of foreign companies, even those from friendly countries such as Britain, to buy American firms.
This is another part of the complex 9/11 legacy. The country remains fearful of further attacks, but having tried to remake the world, many Americans would now feel safer simply withdrawing from it. For all its appeal, this isolationism probably will not prevail. But it would also be wrong to assume that the Bush approach to foreign policy is dead. Political leaders on both the Right and the Left may be holding out against populist temptations, but there is little evidence that they are looking for a return to a pre-9/11 world of international harmony and co-operation.
If you look at who is likely to emerge in the next few years as Republican and Democrat contenders, you get a sense of how much the US was changed, permanently, by 9/11. The leading Republican candidates — Senator John McCain; former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Mitt Romney, the Governor of Massachusetts; Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives — all share the view that the US must take a sharply different approach to the world than the one it took before 9/11.
All, to be sure, are very different characters from President Bush. McCain has a record of working with his political opponents to find compromise — he supports tough measures to combat carbon emissions, for example. Giuliani is an instinctive European-style liberal on social affairs such as abortion and gay marriage; Romney is much admired by the voters of Massachusetts, a place that makes Islington look like a haven for right-wing fundamentalists. But they all still favour an assertive US foreign policy, a break with pre-9/11 policies based on international co-operation.
Their style would surely be different from what we have seen in the past five years, but the thrust of their foreign policy — a readiness to upset allies and to defy international opinion, using American power in aggressive pursuit of its defence — would not change much.
Even the leading Democrats Hillary Clinton, former Senator John Edwards and former Virginia Governor Mark Warner tread carefully in the foreign-policy field. Edwards has recanted his support for the war in Iraq but is surrounded by foreign policy advisers who show no sign of shrinking from using US force. Clinton and Warner have declined even to acquiesce in growing Democratic pleas to renounce the war.
And for all the talk of a post-Bush America, no one is willing to commit the US to the kind of international rules beloved by Europeans.
In the Israel-Lebanon conflict, the US continued to show that it believes that its interests lie in confronting its enemies. The time may still come, under this President or the next, when it decides to confront Iran.
There is a reason for all this. Despite the woes in Iraq, despite the turmoil in the broader Middle East, despite the dismay at Guantanamo and the revulsion at Abu Ghraib, there is a wider acknowledgement that America is a changed place after 9/11, with changed priorities.
Before that fateful September day, America was a country that, having won the Cold War and thereby “ended history”, desired more than anything else to be left alone. It wanted neither the entanglements of foreign wars nor the constraints of international treaties on global warming or international criminal courts.
The biggest threat that America posed to the world before 9/11 was that it would shrink from the world. It says something about a superpower when the main threat it poses is a desire to get out of the way. It was not what we had to worry about from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
But 9/11 called a reluctant America from its torpor. To paraphrase Lenin, the world that day said to it: “You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.” It has spent the past five years trying, and perhaps in many ways failing, to remake the world. But the principal legacy of September 11 is that it will not stop trying.

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