America, Saddam and international opinion


Universe Column

By David Alton

The last few days were an intriguing time to be in the United States. As America was preparing to vote in the mid-term elections the country has also been preparing itself to go to war.

During my visit I was particularly struck by how perplexed ordinary Americans are by the fierce hostility they believe is felt towards them by the rest of the world.

It isn’t just that Britain and America are divided by a common language – with the same words frequently meaning entirely different things – but we are also divided by our different experiences and expectations. We all need to work harder in trying to fathom those differences.

In America the expectation is that if they do not take and tough stand and act decisively against Saddam Hussein they will be targeted again by Islamic extremists. It is as simple as that.

Americans believe that if Saddam does indeed have weapons of mass destruction then he will use them against Chicago or Cincinnati – not Paris or Rome.

Yet it would be wrong to equate these simple certainties with mindless arrogance. There is little “gung-ho-ism” in the US and quite a strong desire for international approbation.

Opinion polls suggest that only 1 in 5 would support the US going to war against Iraq by itself; 50% would support a war if the UK enters with her; and 80% if the campaign is endorsed by the United Nations.

Average America does not want to go-it-alone and believes that the threat to their interests represents a threat to European interests too. They believe that their Congress is a lawful authority in deciding to wage a war but they also accept that it is fundamental to US interests to have strong international institutions. The present crisis is a test for global governance.

UN approval may not be necessary for legitimacy in taking military action but Average America clearly wants the rest of the world to understand its position and preferably to share it.

During two world wars Winston Churchill was well known for his tough public talking but also for private magnanimity.  That’s not so very different from the position of many Americans today.

Ironically it is only two years since Europe’s plaintive cry was that President George W Bush was going to take the US into isolationism. September 11th changed all that and now the US is regarded by many as over-reaching and threatening.

Average America lost its innocence in the Twin Towers. It now sees a threat to its internal security down the barrel of every sniper’s gun; and believes  it is morally unacceptable to wait for the next terrorist attack before they respond.

America’s new burst of internationalism is still focused on vanquishing the perpetrators of terrorism. The issue is whether the US can translate this energy into tackling the fundamental causes and injustices that lie behind terror.

Meanwhile, in Britain, we must desist from the one form of racism that is not merely tolerated but enthusiastically endorsed in many circles: virulent anti-Americanism.  After September 11th this hatred was temporarily suspended but it has now resurfaced with a vengeance.  Turning up the vitriol is not a substitute for engaging with the US.