Why do they hate us? President Bush asked after 9/11. Aren’t we good and a force for good was the gist of companion remarks.
President Bush’s question obviously concerned the radical Islamic terrorists who attacked us 15 months ago. Today that question might be raised not only about our manifest enemies but our alleged allies and friends, particularly in Europe. Why do they hate us? Haven’t we been good for and to them?
The two questions have rather different answers but through the force of events they have now become intertwined.
As President Bush has by now probably learned, we have not always been a force for good in the Muslim and especially Arab world. As the brilliant political scientist, Fouad Ajami, has recently indicated in an article in Foreign Affairs, this has little to nothing to do with American support for Israel. Rather it is that “from one end of the Arab world to the other, [American] power has invariably been on the side of political reaction and a stagnant status quo [and] has settled for relationships of convenience with the autocracies in the saddle, tolerating the cultural and political malignancies of the Arab world.” If we do go to war with Saddam Hussein, he recommends that “a reforming zeal must thus be loaded up with the baggage and the gear.”
Indeed this seems to be President Bush’s inclination — that this time around we be a force for good, for democratic and progressive change. This would not only be good for people in the Muslim world but for ourselves, allowing us to escape the impasse we perennially find ourselves in.
It is not surprising that people in the region will doubt our motives until we actually undertake this mission. They have been burned too many times. What is surprising is the criticism, scorn, and even hatred heaped upon us by our European allies for any venture in Iraq, either the limited goal of removing Saddam Hussein or the more ambitious one of helping Iraq chart a new democratic future. These criticisms are often presented as friendly advice. But they are neither friendly in tone nor even coherent and persuasive counsel.
The French may be taken as the prototypical example, as they claim to speak for Europe and indeed the entire world. But they speak with two quite different voices. On the one hand they are the champions of universal and humanitarian principles. In recent weeks, President Chirac complimented the French (and, of course, himself) for their preeminence in this regard. But when it comes to Iraq and its aspirations for democracy, they gravely warn us of complications and attribute our objectives either to stupidity or bad character or both. Bush’s view of the world is simple-minded, utopian, and arrogant.
This critique comes close to being beneath contempt. There is, however, one point which deserves to be addressed — the charge of utopianism. It is certainly true, as we have learned from the ravages of the 20th century (not to mention the French Revolution,) that utopianism presents great risks. It is also true that America, like every modern nation, runs the risk of utopianism. But it is also true, as a historical and practical matter, that for the better part of the last 100 years, our statements of universal principle and our efforts on their behalf have almost always been solicited by real and concrete dangers to the specific and existing embodiments of those principles, represented by ourselves and other democracies, especially those in Europe. Thus it was in WWI and WWII and subsequently in the Cold War. (Our efforts and victories in these wars are the reason why the French can claim to speak for themselves, let alone anyone else.) Thus it is in the war on terrorism and thus it will be, if and when we go to war with Saddam over his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. One may add, however, that in the course of defending our own independence and that of other democracies, like France, we have sometimes been able to extend liberty to other nations and therewith partially fulfill our more universal aspirations.
Having conveniently forgotten about the first three wars, the French and their supporters derive no more sober conclusions with regard to our present wars, including the war on terrorism. Though there is sympathy for our loss on 9/11, there are objections to our prosecution of this war — its scope, our alleged indifference to civilian casualties, our alleged abrogation of civil liberties. French critics have gone so far as to profess to hear fascist American jackboots in our streets and across the world. We would, they tell us, do far better to follow the sober French example when faced with terrorism in the ‘90′s and “learn to live with it” as one French commentator advises.
This is a most curious example and advice. When France was hit by terrorism on the part of Algerian Islamic radicals in the ’90s it responded by giving its support and advice to the Algerian government in its war with the radicals. Indeed the terrorism it suffered was partially the result of that support. France now has peace on its streets but the Algerian civil war goes on. It has already claimed anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 lives, most of them civilian and many of them killed by government forces. Some of the radicals have found a haven in Britain, claiming asylum as human rights victims. Last week some of these “victims” murdered a British policeman. Thus it is that humanitarian France has learned to live with terrorism.
It would be all too easy to get incensed at the hypocrisy of the French in this and other matters. For example, the French preoccupation with the death toll in the current intifada, the Palestinian death toll (under 2,000) not the Israeli. But this would not provide us with any clear guidance in the present situation. Sometimes nations like France must engage in shameful compromises with their principles. In the Middle East America has in the past not escaped compromises of its own. The critical point is that there is now an opportunity to avoid some if not all such compromises in the future, to break out of the impasse that the Arab and Muslim world have been trapped in and we with it.
Ajami warns us that we should have no “illusions. It is with sobering caution that a war will have to be waged.” We will meet with distrust in the region. But as Ajami says, America ought to be able to live with this distrust.
It would be preferable if we could count on the support of France and other European and democratic states. It would also be just since only wounded vanity and envy seem properly to explain the posture of the French and others. But envy may prevail and we will have to live with this as well as Middle Eastern distrust if we are to perform the duty our power imposes on us.
For that is precisely what we are about — doing our duty, however hard and even grim it may be. Even if others decide to share it they will depend decisively on us. For it seems to be as that other arrogant, simple-minded and even utopian Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, once put it, that America may still be the last, best hope of earth.