LONDON -"We have to change our own attitudes toward Saddam," explained one expert to a wave of applause. "Change must come from within us. We have to learn how to look at Saddam in a new way." This argument, which I'm quoting from memory, was just one of many offered in a pilot episode for a new BBC debate series called "Power" that I participated in.
It seemed at times that I was imported from America to play the role of the Washington Generals -the team that always faces the Harlem Globetrotters and is expected to lose for entertainment's sake. The studio audience was decidedly anti-American and, obviously, anti-war, as were a sizeable chunk of the guests on the show.
In a single hour we ran through all of the classic anti-American arguments, including that this is a war for oil, the United States is an imperial bully, and George Bush is no better than Saddam Hussein.
But it was the suggestion that we, meaning "the West," can change Saddam Hussein if we make ourselves better people that had the greatest impact on me. It so perfectly encapsulates the sophisticated and arrogant stupidity of the liberal European elite.
First, one quick fact that may be a news flash to many European -and American -liberals: America is not now an empire and pretty much never was one. Sure, we've thrown our weight around from time to time, and the CIA has done more than place whoopee cushions under some foreign leaders we didn't like. But with the exception of the Philippines and maybe one or two other spots, the United States simply never held vast swaths of the globe under its thumb.
Unlike the Roman Empire or British Empires, we don't collect imperial taxes, we don't install imperial governors and we don't enforce our laws all around the globe. If you want to call Puerto Rico a colony, be my guest so long as you recognize that Puerto Ricans can vote to throw off the American yoke at will (though Americans, it seems, cannot vote to dislodge Puerto Rico). Typically, empires aren't so voluntary.
Indeed, with the possible and understandable exception of Afghanistan, any nation that currently hosts a U.S. military presence can simply ask for it to leave, and the Americans will start packing.
Indeed, most of our foreign military bases -in Japan, South Korea, Germany and Saudi Arabia, to name just four -are in countries where the governments think American military power is needed to protect them from their neighbors. That's not how the Roman Empire worked.
Europeans, however, ruled -often cruelly -India, Africa, the Middle East, South America and North America. In general, they seem to feel terribly guilty about this fact, and perhaps they should.
They also feel very superior. It is nearly impossible to read a critique of America in the European press that doesn't assert that the Europeans are more "sophisticated," "advanced" and "mature" than we cowboy Americans.
Indeed, the Europeans look at us today and see what they were 50 or 100 years ago. They sneer at us the way a high school senior looks at a freshman -smug with the knowledge that they know what we're doing because they've been there.
So, for example, when they see us contemplating a preemptive war with Iraq, they assume we must just want Iraqi oil because that is how they viewed their former colonies -as giant goody bags of natural resources. They alleviate their own guilt by tsk-tsking us for allegedly doing the terrible things they did, even though we aren't doing anything of the sort.
This rich cocktail of guilt and arrogance would be bad enough if it simply translated into anti-Americanism. But it also manifests itself in a self-absorbed European attitude toward their former colonial subjects, like a parent who can't stop saying "it must be something I did!" every time his or her kid screws up.
So, the problem isn't so much that Saddam has murdered tens of thousands, invaded two countries and is seeking nuclear weapons. No, the problem, in the European view, is "within us." If we noble Euros can become even more sophisticated, we will be able to talk our way out of any problem.
This logic holds that it's not the bank robber who must change, but the teller's attitude toward the bank robber. The only cause for optimism is that this philosophy can only withstand so many robberies before even the most sophisticated tellers will abandon it.