OPINION

Scorched earth

Things are getting out of hand. Who would have thought that just 16 months after the September 11 attacks, a wedge would have been driven between the United States and some of its most important allies because of Iraq? Whether the American campaign against Saddam Hussein would have come about irrespective of Osama bin Laden – because of the perceived threat posed by the Iraqi regime – we do not know. But those who planned the attacks on America, who professed surprise and delight that the Twin Towers came crashing down, can only be thrilled at the growing bitterness between the Western allies. America and Britain, on the one hand, appear ready for war, despite growing reservations among their populations. But France, Germany and many other countries (including Greece) would prefer a delay that could lead to a peaceful solution – either through Saddam being forced to come clean with his weapons of mass destruction or through his being toppled or fleeing into exile. Each country has its own reasons and its own concerns, each has its own fears and interests. What is surprising and worrying, though, is the level of bitterness prompted by this difference of opinion and motives. One indication that this is no black and white issue is the difficulty that American officials had in trying to put the Bush administration’s case across in the months before the UN resolution that called for strict new inspections of Iraq. When President George W. Bush declared he was going after Saddam Hussein, he spoke of the dangers posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but he also spoke of the need for «regime change.» The threat of horrible weapons was something that everyone could understand, in a post-September 11 world in which small groups of suicidal maniacs have proved capable of achieving the greatest possible damage without any scruple. So the message of US officials was focused on the very rational need to make the world a safer place by finding and destroying Saddam’s weapons. The less clear issue of «regime change» took a back seat for a while. To the surprise of many, although they spoke of unilateral action the Americans acted in a multilateral way, taking their case against Saddam to the United Nations and getting a resolution for tougher inspections of his territory. But the inspectors are to present their report to the Security Council on Monday and appear not to have come up with any dramatic evidence of Iraqi duplicity. And now the message from Washington has shifted: Saddam has to go. The United States opposes further inspections and a second resolution. If it insists, the only option left will be war. It says a lot about President Bush and the people around him that they expect the rest of the world to agree unquestioningly. Opposition to Washington’s haste is seen either as truculence (in the case of Germany’s unequivocal «no» to war) or a double-cross (in the case of France suddenly siding with Germany). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented on Thursday that France and Germany were the «old Europe» and therefore hardly relevant on a continent in which many former Communist countries are seen as staunchly pro-American. This was an outrageous statement, not only because of its primary aim of insulting the self-important French and the suddenly stroppy Germans, but because of the condescending implication that America could call the shots in Europe, lining up against France and Germany (the two countries which gave birth to the concept of a united Europe) the newcomers whom they had allowed into their union. This was imperial talk. And by now, more than a decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are all growing accustomed to the fact that America is our era’s empire – especially some Americans. At first we thought this was an empire by default, with democrats and republicans bashfully wearing the crown. Now we are beginning to see some of its officers talking the talk of empire. They not only want to change the regime in Iraq, they are also redrawing the strategic map of Europe according to their own designs. This is not surprising but it is sad. Great countries have always shown off the arrogance of their power. The shame here is that we grew up with an image of another America, one that had created an empire in the mind by making us all feel that, if we wanted to, we could share in its benefits – whether by moving there or by adopting its democratic system of government or by buying its products or sharing its dreams and myths. There were occasions when the interests of America ran contrary to this concept, as when Washington would back dictatorships that aligned themselves with it or opposed governments that did not. But, on the whole, America presented a shining example of what the world could be, while not interfering very much in the lives of others. Be a great country and others will come to see things your way, was the way Americans seemed to think of themselves – at least to us in the distant provinces of the Hollywood Republic. Rumsfeld’s statements, which put words to what seems to be a growing attitude in Washington, now declare that only what is good for America is good for the world. This betrays impatience with the fact that other governments might be answerable to their own electorates and might need to keep an eye on their own interests. And what is most troublesome is that Washington has lately appeared to disregard the need to persuade skeptics. It acts as if it knows best and has no reservations about the outcome of its actions. It has presented its case against Iraq in the «with us or against us» terms expressed by Bush in the days after September 11 and now elaborated on by Rumsfeld, and it has presented America’s virtues and icons as caricatures of themselves – in sound bites like «I want him dead or alive» (on Osama) and «This is the guy who tried to kill my dad» (on Saddam), or in photographs of the president wearing a big cowboy hat. The world is too wired up and its citizens too interconnected for anyone to be able to present life-and-death issues in simplistic movie terms. Even the Gulf War of 1990-1991 seems decades away. That was a time when Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait led to the whole world’s uniting against Saddam; when a Palestinian Intifada was not raging; when militant Islamists could be expected to oppose the secular Saddam and had not gained the sense of empowerment provided by September 11; when there was no Al-Jazeera and the fallout of war could be stage-managed to a great extent; when the collapse of Communism had taken the wind out of the sails of the anti-US, «anti-imperialist» demonstrators in Western streets and the anti-globalization movement had not yet risen. This time, apart from the fact that Iraqi forces are weaker and the Americans stronger, all the other battalions of difficulty are lined up against Washington. The most direct danger – that an attack on Iraq will unleash terrorists across the globe – is perhaps the least plausible excuse to defer action. Those who are intent on destruction are already primed to do it. You cannot get mad hornets even madder. Finding them and crushing them is a separate and urgent task. And this is a task at which not only Britain and Spain but also the black sheep of Washington’s world are very busy. Does Washington think that the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Turks, the Greeks and any other nation that might be wary of war in Iraq is not on its side in the war against terrorism? Of course not. In which case, one might ask whether the United States has now decided that a war against Iraq (which may reap benefits in terms of cheap oil or a friendly government in Baghdad but which might just as easily sow a whirlwind) is more urgent than fighting the very present danger posed by terrorists. Is this then a good time for insults to fly across the Atlantic, between those who are allied against the terrorists? And yet this is where we stand today. But what happens now? The dream solution would be if Saddam and his closest aides and family disappeared. But as this is not likely, perhaps the most feasible course of action would be for the United States and its allies to make clear to each other that they will present a united, unwavering front against Iraq while at the same time agreeing not to invade unless – and until – they are all in agreement. America may not like this, but this unity will be the world’s best defense against the threat of disorder and it will lead, eventually, to Saddam’s fall. In the end, even if America rushes forward, the allies will stick together, knowing that otherwise the world they want to preserve will come apart. When all is said and done, even in our so-modern world, survival comes down to the same thing that it did in Homeric times: Help your friends and harm your enemies. If America and its allies do not heed this, even the greatest and cleanest victory in Iraq would be a disaster and the profits pitiful, and the cost a 50-year alliance that had made the world a better place.