Our small role in a changing world

In just three weeks, the Americans thundered into Baghdad and toppled the regime and statues of Saddam Hussein. With outbursts of jubilation by local citizens, the Americans also toppled the prophecies that foresaw a quagmire. The dictator and his inner circle have disappeared and there is widespread looting and anarchy in Iraq and many unanswered questions: Where are the weapons of mass destruction that were the ostensible cause of the war? Where are the Americans who were captured by the Iraqis? But the war is all but over and this is a time of mopping up and a time of reckoning. The world has changed completely. No one will see the United States the way we saw it before. The international order has not only been shaken, the cards have been thrown up in the air and we have to see where they will fall. The Middle East has been changed to an extent not seen since the great rearrangement of borders after World War I that was described so aptly as the «peace to end all peace.» The hawks in the current US administration picked up the challenge of the Middle East in the same way that the Europeans looked at the crumbling Ottoman Empire’s Arab lands a century ago. The Europeans thought that by playing with borders and ethnic differences they could further their own interests in that most benighted part of our planet. What we got was nearly 100 years of wars and the birth of international terrorism. We will now see if the Americans’ gamble will work out for the best. War might be terrible but perhaps it was the only way to shake up a system that was obviously not working. Everything now depends on what happens next: on how the Americans administer Iraq, how the country’s neighbors behave, and how the Palestinian issue is settled. Now America’s fate is tied irrevocably with that of the Middle East. We can only wish our friends the best of luck and express the hope that they will use the collective wisdom of the world (that they ignored when they chose to go it alone with only the support of the British and a few others) in waging the war. Whether we supported the war or not, every country will have to see what course it will chart in these new waters. And here I would like to beg the indulgence of Kathimerini English Edition’s readers to discuss our little corner of the world and our newspaper’s humble role in it. For the last five years, Kathimerini, Greece’s leading morning daily, has been publishing an English edition in partnership with the International Herald Tribune (which is owned by the New York Times). Kathimerini English Edition is the product of this joint partnership and is published with the IHT in Greece and Cyprus. Why state the obvious? Because, being the only English-language daily newspaper on the Internet, with tens of thousands of regular readers, many of them do not know that our brief is to publish Greek, Cypriot and regional news, as well as our own editorials, comments and analyses on local, regional and international events. Readers of our print edition get a wealth of international news and comment from the International Herald Tribune in addition to Kathimerini English Edition, whereas readers of our online edition may miss the explanation on our home page that our paper is «Exclusively available inside the International Herald Tribune in Greece and Cyprus.» That explains why many letter writers accuse us of a perverse disregard of major international developments. The war in Iraq has shown, once again, that for anyone who does not know Greek or who lives abroad and is interested in Greece and the Greeks, Kathimerini’s English Edition is a most valuable source of information and comment and a forum for debate. Our belief is that the pain of upsetting many readers – especially Americans and Greek Americans, who are sometimes shocked by what they see as unfriendly and inexplicable comments – is countered by the fact that those same readers are getting the truth from us. They are free to form their own opinions on the debate in Greece on the basis of knowledge, and not by having to imagine what the Greeks might be saying or doing. Our baptism of fire came when our newspaper was just one year old. Relations between Athens and Washington had been improving steadily, mainly because the US administration had opposed the breakup of Yugoslavia, in contrast to the Europeans who, led by Germany, were responsible for opening up Pandora’s Box. But Yugoslavia’s disintegration set off such a chain of disasters that by the spring of 1999 the United States felt pressured into declaring war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo. Most Greeks were outraged, with some 90 percent of them opposing the war and, by extension, the United States. This gave cause to the extreme Left (which was still smarting from the collapse of communism), the nationalistic Right and the Church to join forces in shouting against the United States. As for those in the middle, they were simply opposed to war. Political forces, the Church, unions, intellectuals and most mass media, as so often, chose to pander to public opinion, creating the vicious cycle in which even the best of intentions and motives are corrupted by those exploiting popular sentiment. The war over Kosovo placed us in the middle of the debate. Many Greek readers were angered by what they saw as the uncritical backing for the war by the International Herald Tribune, while many English-speaking readers were upset by comments they read in Kathimerini English Edition. Our pages became the forum for an intensive exchange of opinions. Some readers were unhappy but at least they were informed on what the debate was about. Unfortunately, we cannot say that the same rich exchange of opinions was evident in the Greek-language news media, where, similar to today, commentators did their best to outdo each other in extremist, simplistic condemnation of the war without much analysis as to either its causes or its consequences, and television and newspaper reports concentrated on the bloody consequences of the fighting on civilians. How else could Greek audiences respond, when faced with such pictures, other than to oppose war? But aside from being a forum for expression of opposing ideas, Kathimerini’s English Edition also became a mirror through which readers in Greece could see how others saw us. Our own writers – staff members and contributors – also took part in the debate, often providing opinions that were not evident elsewhere in the Greek media. This broad diversity of opinion in our pages has been reflected in other international crises. The watershed, though, was September 11. That earth-shattering event caused waves across the world. One of them knocked a hole through the relationship between many Greek Americans and Greece, as the former saw what they felt was unjustifiable indifference by Greeks to the shock and horror that the Americans felt. The Greeks, brought up on a diet of conspiracy theories and equivocating about US policies in the world, were slow to pick up the fact that, for the first time, Americans were taking offense. Suddenly, instead of just anti-Americanism being prevalent in Greece, a wave of anti-Hellenism began to form in the United States (just as anti-French opinion suddenly grew in recent months). This involved populist attacks by papers such as the New York Post, which came across as the equivalent of most Greek tabloids. Part of the crisis between Greeks and Greek Americans (as well as many Americans aware of what Greeks were writing and saying) was caused by the fact that the Americans had now lowered their tolerance for criticism to a level close to that of the touchy Greeks. This has now reached the point where many Greek-American letter writers are outraged by any comments or demonstrations that they disagree with. They threaten to stop reading Kathimerini, they express shame at their Greek heritage, they say they will not visit Greece. In this immoderate anger they are more similar to Greek extremists than they would like to believe. Many are angered by comments they don’t like and ignore those that do not annoy them, because Kathimerini and Kathimerini English Edition have a broad range of commentators who reflect the spectrum of opinions on events. Some, for example, might always support the underdog against a more powerful authority – irrespective of whether that authority is the Greek police force or the US administration. Someone else might be strongly in favor of law and order, and so on. Most are not in favor of war, under any circumstances. These are valid points. Unfortunately, the climate of anti-Americanism broadcast abroad undermines Greek arguments. Because we at this newspaper believe that, despite the images, Greece can play an important role as a bridge between East and West. And we believe that the Greeks, in being so politicized and critical, are a valuable indicator of how American policies might be seen in regions that are more critical than some of our readers would like. Despite their failings, the Greeks have their heart in the right place. We are an ancient nation that has lived through both empire and occupation many times. We are sensitive to danger, like canaries in a mine. If we are won over by American policy, then so will the hardest audiences in the world. It is our paper’s duty to facilitate this debate.