A European conversation

Posted: Sep 01, 2004 12:00 AM
"People hate you. Everyone hates you. The whole world hates you." The pretty middle-aged woman, a Swiss mother and scholar, at the dinner table in Geneva earnestly wants to make that perfectly clear.

She isn't angry with me. She thinks the American people are totally ignorant, misled by the media and a criminal president. She also thinks the United States invaded Afghanistan in order to grab an oil pipeline.

This is my test of whether conversation is possible. I can understand how Europeans can believe the war in Iraq was about oil. After all, European nations like France and Russia had been benefiting from sweetheart oil deals in Iraq for years. But Afghanistan?

That small, rocky, undeveloped, desperately poor nation dominated by tribal warlords? Yeah, sure the war on terror is just an excuse. We've been lusting to take over Afghanistan for years. As if America needs a warm-water port.

But I persevere, trying to "achieve disagreement," to understand (even if I can't make her understand) why the world looks so different to her than to me and most other Americans (Michael Moore fans excepted). Sixty percent of Americans support the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war, according to a Pew Research Center poll last month reported in USA Today. Even John Kerry says he will unilaterally use force to protect the United States, if necessary.

This is exactly what makes my sweet Swiss friend lapse into hate speech. "What right have you to go into Iraq?" she asks. "Where does the U.N. get that right?" I counter.

For me it is a serious question. The United Nations has its uses, but how can the majority vote of bureaucrats representing dictatorships make a war right or wrong?

But we can't get into a conversation about whether the Iraqi war is a just one, because for her my question is in itself a moral atrocity: "The U.N. is peace!" she bursts out peremptorily, passionately. Doing what the U.N. says is right. Acting without U.N. permission makes you wrong. She trusts the U.N. to keep her safe. I trust the government of the United States of America.

It makes sense, given our respective histories, except of course that Europeans also want the U.S. to supply the military muscle to make United Nations decisions stick where necessary (like Bosnia). The U.N. fig leaf allows Europeans to believe something called "international law" is sufficient to keep the peace and to protect ordinary people.

Does it sometimes take a war in order to achieve justice? Fifty-five percent of Americans strongly agree. Only 18 percent of Europeans do.

In Iraq, the benevolent consequences of American power are beginning to show. "The Mehdi Army is now turning to peaceful struggle," an aide to the chastened would-be rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced. "Muqtada will declare his participation in Iraq's political process." Partisans are deciding it makes more sense to muster votes, not guns.

The people of Iraq are beginning to taste the fruits. A New York Times headline announces: "Long Stifled, Iraqis Make the Most of Chance to Vent on Talk Radio." Mostly they complain about the lack of garbage collections, power interruptions, questioning local political officials in ways "which would have been unheard of in the time of Saddam Hussein, when government officials were royalty and ordinary citizens were mere supplicants," the Times reports. Asked whether the recent insurgencies were examples of terrorism or resistance, "a very large proportion, almost 100 percent, said terrorism," an Iraqi talk-radio host reports. "They did not like it."

The Iraqi people want peace and democracy. The U.S. military might is making that choice possible, making it more rational for armed rebels to choose democratic struggle over violent insurrection.

Meanwhile, here at home we are safer because a violent dictator with a taste for international conquest, who had contacts with al-Qaida and sought nuclear weapons, has been removed from the world stage.

Nobody likes to be hated. But turn our troops over to the United Nations?

"You'd have to have a totalitarian government in the United States, because the American people won't stand for it," I tell my Swiss friend. That's off the table. What's the next best option?