Americans Abroad

Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman; drawing by David Levine


The debate on the war with Iraq has become a global referendum on American power. The Bush administration wanted to call the attention of the world to the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein’s defiance of UN resolutions only to discover that the world was far more worried about the dangers posed by American use of force. The US threat to use force made inspections work in the first place, but now that inspections are finally yielding tangible results, most of the Security Council wants them to continue. Peaceful disarmament of the regime is only possible if a credible threat of force remains in place. But since the French, Russians, Germans, and Chinese are reluctant to authorize force, Saddam may believe that he can cheat even more intrusive inspections and get away with it. Unless, that is, he is certain the Americans and British would act unilaterally, without UN approval. So if they genuinely want disarmament and not regime change, there may be some logic in the American and British threat to use force unilaterally, since this is the threat that makes inspections work. But that logic has not won over the Council or the world. Nobody but the British and American governments think it is worth going to war over this issue, either now or in the future. The great coalition created by September 11 has collapsed.

The administration must now be hoping that American success in battle will reduce its critics to impotent silence. In a war on terror, however, the key battle is for opinion. The aim is to drain the pool of angry young people willing to die to avenge the humiliations they believe are inflicted by American power. If reducing this pool is a vital strategic goal, winning on the battlefield alone may produce only a Pyrrhic victory. In one battlefield of ideas—Europe—the war of opinion has already been lost. Even if America retains the political support of key leaders, like Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Britain’s Tony Blair, together with the leaders of emerging democracies like Bulgaria, the electorates of these societies are convinced that America, and not its enemies, poses the chief risk to world peace. In Europe, moreover, there are not only disillusioned local populations that have become anti-American. The mosques contain more than a few willing young Muslim recruits for terror.

The battle for opinion in the Arab and Muslim worlds is in the same worrying state. When American writers and journalists venture out into these worlds—as Thomas Friedman and Jedediah Purdy have done—they return with alarming tales of disenchantment among former friends of America, together with fury among its enemies.

Ever since his award-winning 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem, The New York Times’s foreign affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, has been the single most influential editorial voice shaping American attitudes toward the Arab world. Corny, sentimental, folksy, he comes on like…

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