America and the War

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine

“America is solidly organized egoism, it is evil made systematic and regular.” Osama bin Laden? No, Pierre Buchez, a French socialist writing in the 1840s. Anti-Americanism goes back a long way. It was not born of American global domination—when Edmond de Goncourt wanted to express his horror at Baron Haussmann’s new Paris he observed that “it makes me think of some American Babylon of the future.” That was in 1860, when the US was still at best a regional power. Much has changed since then, though America is still seen in many quarters as the embodiment of rootlessness, disruption, cosmopolitanism: modernity, in short. But if the US is to make sense of its place in the world, if the present war is to have any beneficial long-term outcome, Americans need to make a sustained effort to understand what it is that so many millions of foreigners claim to dislike and fear about their country.

In the present mood, this subject elicits little serious discussion. Some on the left, whether in the US or Europe, have slipped comfortably back into familiar routines: peace vigils, teach-ins, and finger-pointing. The real problem, it sometimes seems, is not terrorists but the American government. “They” (George Bush, the Establishment) will use the crisis as an excuse to trample on our civil liberties—for Terry Eagleton, writing in the London Review of Books, the US is already “a one-party state.” And as for the horror of September 11, some just can’t help feeling that, as the historian Mary Beard put it, “however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming.” Professor Thomas Laqueur of Berkeley writes that “on the scale of evil the New York bombings are sadly not so extraordinary and our government has been responsible for many that are probably worse.” Frederic Jameson of Duke University argues that “the Americans created bin Laden during the Cold War…. This is therefore a textbook example of dialectical reversal.” We devised the world’s problems—imperialism, exploitation, globalization—so we shouldn’t be surprised at the backlash.1

There is an ugly hubris in these lofty self-condemnations—as though all the world’s crimes and sins were just another American invention. In this view, if the US were not running amok in the world, projecting power and cruise missiles into Panama, the Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we would not now be suffering such terrible retribution. But American intervention in Kosovo, at least, saved the local (mostly Muslim) population from a catastrophe of genocidal proportions. In its foreign dealings, America typically does both harm and good.

But this nuance is lost on many domestic critics from the left; and as a result they are often at a loss to explain what has happened. As The Nation put it in a recent editorial, “Why the attacks took place is still unclear.” This view of the world mirrors that of its opponents on…

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