Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Greetings after a sad New Year's

I know I’ve been silent for a while, and some people have asked me if I have “recovered” from the election. Indeed, I put so much energy into communicating during the run-up to it, that I have needed time to get back to the rest of my life. Although I was disappointed with the outcome, communicating with you was very rewarding. It was a good way to feel involved in the debate from afar.

I was in New York shortly after the election. Even though New York is not exactly a bastion of conservatism (au contraire !), I heard a variety of views. One person said the election came down to differing world views: one that is ready to accept the notion that there are limits to what the United States can do (environmentally, politically, militarily, etc.) and one that is unwilling to accept that notion. Another person said he voted for President Bush, because he (the voter) was more of a “nationalist” than an “internationalist”. It also seemed to me that many families split their votes. Meanwhile, some e-mail I received reflected the view that John Kerry’s campaign and the Democratic Party in general were driven by an “East and West Coast elite” whereas supporters of President Bush represented the “real” America. I began to wonder why it was that the Democratic party has seemed unable to forge a broad vision of the future. Moreover, I wondered why “the vision thing” was so important to begin with.

Finally, it seemed to me that there were two categories of people who voted against their economic self-interest in this election. This was nothing new for American politics – my mother used to analyze things this way when I was growing up – but the contrast seemed as stark as ever. Simplifying, the first group was that “elite”, if such a group indeed exists. To the extent these people are wealthy, higher taxes would not benefit them. Nor would more generous social programs. But they seem to think that with them, America as a whole would be better off. The other group was composed of those who have worked hard all their lives, earning a modest, but honest living. These people, it seems, resent the largesse of the social and entitlement programs and want more self-reliance in America. Lower taxes and stricter entitlement programs will not help them either, but they think they will make America overall better off. These are both noble, enlightened views. But I can’t escape the feeling that the second group was hoodwinked by the Bush administration into believing theirs.

The new year comes in the wake – literally – of tragic events halfway round the world, as it did last year after the earthquake in Iran. For the first two days of the crisis, the Bush administration’s response, if any, was inaudible here in Europe. Only after accusations of “stinginess” began to surface, did the president announce his multinational initiative. Regardless of the merit of those accusations, it was a shame the US government’s pledge to help had to come in that context.

When it did come, it was, initially, anything but generous. Senator Leahy said that we spend $35 million every day in Iraq before breakfast. He thought he was being sarcastic. In fact, if we assume that our troops are early risers and eat breakfast at 6am, then Senator Leahy’s estimate means we spend $140 million a day, or $51 billion a year. You be the judge of how close that is to reality.

This is not to say that Americans have not been generous. Americans themselves are as kind and warm-hearted as any people on Earth and have been showing it. Anyone who has visited or lived in America knows that. Yet America is viewed abroad as domineering and selfish, because the American government, which is thought to represent its people, gives the impression of putting America first just a little too often.

Why didn't George Bush show America’s greatness in those first few days? When will this administration understand that that’s what the world wants to see? Instead, after demanding, in no uncertain terms, that all nations stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States after September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration’s response to this natural catastrophe, seemed at the very least, insensitive. We can only hope they get things right in the long run. Colin Powell’s delegation will probably do a good job. Too bad he’s leaving….

On to Iraq, that fully sovereign nation we are helping to set free. This week’s Economist has an article that starts out like this:

THERE is only one traffic law in Ramadi these days: when Americans approach, Iraqis scatter. Horns blaring, brakes screaming, the midday traffic skids to the side of the road as a line of Humvee jeeps ferrying American marines rolls the wrong way up the main street. Every vehicle, that is, except one beat-up old taxi. Its elderly driver, flapping his outstretched hand, seems, amazingly, to be trying to turn the convoy back. Gun turrets swivel and lock on to him, as a hefty marine sergeant leaps into the road, levels an assault rifle at his turbanned head, and screams: “Back this bitch up, motherfucker!”

Now I don’t take issue with this sergeant’s methods, or even his language, as it is very difficult for people like me, sitting in my living room, to understand how men and women act under high stress. But I do take issue with the methods of the commanders of our armed forces. If this excerpt and the rest of the article, submitted by an embedded journalist, are anything to go by, the US military hasn’t got a clue as to who its enemies are and how to find them. As a person who earns his living in a language field, my first thought was that the severe lack of Arabic speakers mentioned in the article is perhaps the US military’s most serious handicap. By the way, I think it was a similar mix of fear, bewilderment and lack of respect that contributed to the Abu Ghraib scandal. Then, as now, I find it extraordinary that no heads rolled as a result of that one. I’m thinking in particular of the Secretary of Defense.

Click here for the full Economist article.
Let me know if access is limited to subscribers; I’ll send you the full text.

May peace be with you in 2005.