Notes on the Atrocities Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...
Wednesday, February 19, 2003
A Nation's Reputation
Whatever ambivalence that remained about the President’s proposed Iraq invasion vanished completely over the weekend: the world does not want to go to war. The leaders of most of the world’s nations are expressing their displeasure at the UN as I write this, and within those countries where there is state support, the population is clearly against it (as measured by bodies and in polls).
The US seems genuinely baffled by the opposition. To the Bush administration, there’s nothing fuzzy about this math: dangerous and evil Saddam plus powerful and good America equals forced regime change. It’s something akin to cutting out a malignant tumor, in the White House’s view. How could such a thing be controversial?
But the issue at hand is not about Saddam—on that issue the world seems in agreement. Yes, he is indeed a Very Bad Man. Instead, the dispute is about the calculation that the US is good—something as inconceivable to Americans as it is obvious to the rest of the world.
The US has created for itself an identity built on hagiography (which every country does). That view was exposed in the famous “old Europe” quote by Donald Rumsfeld. The old Europe is the pre-WWII Europe; the confused Europe who tried to negotiate herself out of a Nazi nightmare. The old Europe is the Europe the United States has fixed in its mind: a place mired in indecision until it was necessary to call on the clear-eyed heroes who would stand against evil.
Rumsfeld didn’t expose Europe so much as he exposed that the administration sees itself as Normandy Beach America. It is a mythology that has become identity, permeating not only the White House (where the boss styles himself a nouveau Churchill) but the consciousness of a nation swayed by the argument that wherever there is injustice the US has an interest.
But whereas self-identity becomes rigid over time, national reputations are as fleeting as the destruction of a wall. To the rest of the world, the history of the US may be admirable, but it’s not proof of virtuous intent. The nations of the world are aware that the change in presidents can signal wholesale change in policies, priorities, and even alliances. They regard the war on Iraq not as an inevitable triumph of good over evil, but the result of the wishes of a single man. And, because they were not weaned on the hagiography of Normandy Beach America (some even emphasize My Lai America, or Iran-Contra America), citizens and leaders of other nations have no particular belief in the inherent goodness of the United States. It is just another extremely powerful country flexing its muscles.
It looks like the Bush administration will get its war. If their calculations are correct, they may even get a solid victory. But there’s a serious trade-off for this short-term gain. If the US fails to heed the concerns of the rest of the citizens of the globe, it will lose (at least during the Bush years, but likely forever) its credibility as a country willing to work democratically with its fellow nations. President Bush loves to play the game of power politics, pushing his capital to the limit. But this is not a game of administration capital, it’s a game of national credibility. In this respect, the greatest legacy of the Bush administration may well be sadly ironic: the destruction of the very goodwill and trust it established on the beaches of Normandy.