Owners of the truth

The Greeks have taken the war in Iraq to heart, as if they were among the protagonists of the conflict. At the government level this is because Greece is currently the president of the European Union and therefore has to keep an eye on the war and the rift that has opened between some EU countries and the United States and, by extension, within the EU itself. But for the public the interest is far more intense and, it would appear, personal. There are a number of reasons for this, many of which stem from the highly politicized nature of Greek society and the anti-American sensibility that has become the common denominator of political debate. But perhaps the greatest reason for the public involvement in protesting against the war is the fact that the Greek news media, most political parties, trade unions and intellectuals have been making great efforts to outdo each other in their condemnation of American policy. There is such unanimity in the way that the war is seen that it is impossible to know whether this is the result of the one-dimensional view of the news media or whether the media do not dare to challenge the monolith of public opinion and therefore pander to it. A healthy spirit of protest, in other words, is corrupted by an overriding sense of self-righteousness. A poll published yesterday found that 90.7 percent of Greeks were totally opposed to the intervention in Iraq while 3.4 percent were «quite opposed» to it. Only 1.4 percent agreed completely with the war and 2.0 percent agreed to an extent. In other words, only 3.4 percent were not opposed to the war – a figure small enough to be swallowed by the poll’s margin of error. We have not seen figures from Arab countries, but it is highly unlikely that fewer than four out of every hundred people in Arab countries might like to see the end of Saddam Hussein, irrespective of whether they are distressed by the fact that American firepower is doing this. In Greece we have the cocktail of blanket condemnation of war (especially when waged by the United States, because if it is waged by, say, Serbs or Russians, we can live with it) combined with respect for Saddam Hussein on the simple basis that if the United States is against him then he must be doing something right. It will be interesting to see how this will be reconciled with the Greeks’ fixation on tyrant-slayers when the Iraqi regime is removed and its dungeons are thrown open to the light of day. (How will we be able to justify our siding with the underdog when we see what he was doing to the unfortunate dog under him?) It is almost certain that our media wizards will shake their heads knowingly and declare that this is all a fabrication by the victors, once again avoiding the opportunity to confess that reality is a little more nuanced than they present it. In the meantime, Greek television channels and most newspapers have focused on the most sensational images of the suffering of Iraqi civilians. This creates a skewed picture of what is happening in Iraq and helps drive the anti-war movement, although, gradually, it hardens viewers and leads to proportionally smaller protest rallies. On the other hand, viewers of television in other Western countries have been getting far more of the US and British action from the safer side of their guns and bombs and less of the results of their actions. Unfortunately, the Greek news media feel that they are balancing the coverage provided by foreign news channels, while they are simply giving their own viewers and readers an unbalanced view. Even more importantly, a whole new generation of young Greeks is growing up with the message that the United States is responsible for nothing but war and mayhem in the world. They hear it from their teachers – who hold strikes so that they and the children can attend anti-war rallies – from the leaders of political parties, on television and on the front pages of newspapers at kiosks. On talk shows and op-ed pages they see the country’s intellectuals trying to outbid each other in the extravagance of their condemnation of the United States. But this is merely an equal and opposite reaction to the blunt way in which the current US administration sees the world – in moral absolutes. You are with us or with the terrorists, President Bush says. If you are with the war you are responsible for all its ills, the Greeks respond. Lost in the argument is whether Saddam Hussein should be removed and whether he could have been removed in another way. When other Europeans or American anti-war protesters question US policy, we in Greece seem to see this as justification for our own position. But the irony is that the American protesters are expressing a healthy and necessary minority opinion, while the Europeans are very often protesting against positions taken by their own governments and are part of a greater debate on the issue. It is perhaps only in Greece and in Muslim countries where condemnation of the war is almost unanimous. The sad thing is that these «revolutionary» spirits expressed in our streets are very much an establishment attitude. Even the ruling PASOK party has tried to play a leading role in the anti-war protests, trying to co-opt some of the energy from the street as an infusion of blood in a tired party that has been running Greece for all but three of the past 22 years. The Church, the left-wing and right-wing press and the unions all share the same opinion. The government, however, has been living up to its treaty obligations by offering military facilities to the Americans and is also keeping its channels of communication open with Greece’s major ally and traditional guarantor of its security. This only helps fuel the hyperbole of the small leftist parties, which demand that Greece stop helping the US. This immediately sets the agenda and becomes the standard by which the news media judge the government’s behavior – rather than evaluating the country’s policy with regard to its long-term interests. In this climate, those who express another opinion are immediately in danger of being labeled American lackeys, as if we were living during the civil war when Greeks could be divided so easily. So dissent is minimal and, even when expressed, must be presented with such exaggerated emphasis as to defeat its purpose. Because one of the greatest strengths of a democracy is the opportunity it provides its citizens to debate the nuances of the things that affect them. Strong opinions are only useful when they have been tempered in the fire of debate, not when they are presented for easy consumption the way anti-Americanism is in Greece these days. Yet even if most Greeks are over their top in their criticism of American policy, this does not imply that this policy is correct. History must judge whether the damage that Washington caused to the fabric of international law and institutions in order to chase after Saddam Hussein in this way was worth the trouble. As the mighty US Army gathers at the gates of Baghdad, the result seems to justify the means, that a quick war might liberate Iraq from Saddam’s dark regime. But this has been a great gamble and remains so. Because if the emotional reactions of the Greeks can be of any use, they can serve to show how the war in Iraq can radicalize a whole new generation in the region. When the war is over, Greeks will get on with their lives while their government and conservative opposition party will try to chart a new course through the new world with its single superpower and divisions within Europe. But too many of us will believe we know what’s at fault with the world and we will not look to see how much is wrong with our own house. The only way for Greece to succeed is if its people have a clear view of their problems and learn to solve them themselves. Otherwise we will keep carping as we march in an endless protest rally into irrelevance and oblivion.