Echoes from the past

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In a remarkable decision, the Knesset recently approved a motion declaring solidarity with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi and denouncing Europe’s “hate campaign” against him. A close friend of Israel, Berlusconi has suggested that Israel should join the EU, has supported the war against terror, and during a recent visit to the region refused to meet Arafat. As the saying goes, tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.

Just before the war against Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld wanted to play down the international role of France and Germany by referring to a “new Europe”. France and Germany, he argued, represent the “old Europe”, at a time when the political centre of gravity on the continent, and within NATO, is moving east. Certainly, the public opinion gap between the Americans and the Europeans would seem to be widening. Since the 1970s, Europe has been seeking to reduce tension in our volatile region, motivated by geographical proximity, immigration, and at times direct exposure to violence. There are even some who say that Europe has begun the difficult work of re-examining its colonial past.

Not surprisingly, Rumsfeld encountered a number of difficulties in reaching a precise definition of where “old Europe” ended and the “new Europe” began. Spain, Italy, and Britain hardly count as new players on the European scene, but they have nevertheless supported US bellicosity without batting an eyelid. So, are France and Germany alone in representing “old Europe”?

The US secretary of defence sought to clarify his position in subsequent statements. The Marines wrestling champion-turned-politico-military doctrinaire offered the following theory. What separates European countries one from another is not size, geography, or age, but the attitude and vision they bring to their involvement with NATO. In other words, what matters is how countries react to US foreign policy. Of course, things are not always stated with such clarity. On another occasion, George W Bush and Rumsfeld stated that countries and nations that have just gone through a phase of dictatorship are more “sensitive towards the suffering of others” (Richard Bernstein, The New York Times, 12 June 2003). However, what the US secretary of defence perceives as sensitivity to the suffering of other people is simply the opportunistic calculation of countries that have no foreign policy worth mentioning and are trying to rid themselves of a certain tradition of mandatory “solidarity” with Third World peoples. Indeed, whether such countries have ever had any sensitivity to human suffering remains an open question.

Rumsfeld’s remarks sparked a furore across Europe, generating a level of resentment that only a Berlusconi is usually able to generate. There has never been a shortage of Berlusconis — charlatans-turned-businessmen-turned-politicians, whose sensibility rivals that of the crudest of our own Arab leaders, and who descend into sheer idiocy whenever they try to be clever. Berlusconi’s remarks are too banal to be dignified with serious analysis. Rumsfeld’s remarks, however, cannot be ignored.

For one thing, this line of argument effectively turns things upside down, and invites us to speculate about the existence of an “old” United States alongside the “new” Europe. The US policy to which Europe is being asked to subscribe without making any fuss about it is, in fact, as old as the hills. The only new thing about this policy — US unilateralism — is that it is now in a position to be implemented. While the United States expects to garner international support, it is also quite ready to go it alone.

There is nothing in the thinking of the so-called neo-cons that Henry Kissinger or Paul Nitze have not said in the past. Many in the neo-con contingent are leftovers from the Reagan era. The high point of the neo-cons’ past interaction with our region was their attempt to cover up the Iran-Contra affair some two decades ago. The main points of their policy are: an ideological monopoly on truth, in the form of a foreign policy that sees the world in terms of good and evil; imperial conduct in all available spheres of influence; disregard for balances and checks; commitment to the status quo as a pretext for inaction; and breach of due procedure whenever this is deemed to be of benefit to themselves. All these elements can be traced back to the Truman era and the post-war period. Together, they constitute the old part of the new US policy.

What is new is not the policy, but the concentration of political power and the expansion of the police state within the United States. However, both these phenomena fall outside the scope of this article. What is also new is the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as a technological and economic mega-power that can turn its ambitions into a credible unilateral quest, and for which the entire world is now identified as its potential sphere of influence. There was nothing new about the United States going to war in Iraq without UN endorsement. Rather, what was new was that it had sought an international mandate before doing battle in Kuwait and Serbia.

The war on Iraq was a modern-day, technologically-improved version of older US wars. It was modelled closely on the 50 or so military adventures Washington has conducted since World War II, all of which (the Korean war being a stage- managed exception) were carried out without UN approval. In all those earlier wars, the Americans lacked a decisive technological advantage and were faced by adversaries who had enough staying power to make the conflict costly. None of that applies to the recent war on Iraq.

Is there anything new in Europe? Is Europe, old or new, ready to accept this US attitude? The answer is no. What is new in Europe is a wave of grassroots opposition to US policy unseen since World War II. What is new is that many European countries, including Germany, are trying to forge an independent foreign policy, one which will take into account both domestic party rivalries and popular anti-war feeling. There is nothing new, notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s claims, in the policy of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the other new NATO members. These countries had no foreign policy worth mentioning before, and have not acquired one since. Nor does their foreign policy agenda, such as it is, contain any reference to human rights or sensitivity to dictatorships.

In the past, these countries were held captive to Soviet foreign policy; now they are held captive to US foreign policy. Radical changes may have occurred in their political and economic systems, but the elites that run those systems are still more or less the same. A class of party operatives and technocrats, having belatedly discovered their latent democratic leanings, have taken over the privatisation process, and ended up owning whatever was privatised. They have shared the booty with black market racketeers, in a climate where the mafia represents the other side of the coin of political initiative. These countries are light years yet from an independent foreign policy agenda. True, their nationalistic tendencies have been freed from former ideological restraints, but not so far as to provide a basis for independent thinking or action.

Polish nationalism, traditionally close to the Catholic church, is hewn out of bitterness and marked by a sense of persecution born out of centuries of isolation, of constant menace by the surrounding Slav Orthodox and German Lutheran creeds. This bitterness has a frustrated colonial twist to it. It is ironic that this frustration would ultimately find its outlet in Palestine, where Zionism fed on the grievances of Polish nationalism. (Most Zionist leaders hail from the area sandwiched between Russia and Poland — disputed lands where nationalistic zeal has long run high).

German and Russian opposition to US bellicosity gave Poland the chance to be adversely, if not opportunistically, assertive. By supporting US policy, Poland sent Germany a message that it is not going to be drawn into its political orbit, notwithstanding the economic help the Germans offered the Poles during the shift from a state-run economy to the free market. The countries that are just now joining the EU, with US prodding, are afraid of being absorbed into the Franco- German power vortex, and the recent nationalistic assertiveness of Germany and France has not done much to allay their fears. Since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Germany’s Ostpolitik, and in particular its support of Croatian separatism, has also not endeared it to the countries of central and eastern European.

Populist demagoguery, fuelled by regional rivalries of the type now seen between the 10 new NATO members, explains why the countries in question prefer closer ties with the United States rather than with their European neighbours. Interestingly, this phenomenon has also generated a tendency for these countries to seek to stay on the right side of Israel. Of European ministers who have visited Israel recently, only those from Poland, Hungary, and other eastern European countries — some of whom are former communist party leaders — have acquiesced to Israel’s request that they not meet with Yasser Arafat. This at a time when close allies of the United States, including ministers of Spain and Britain, have insisted on meeting Arafat — not out of any love for the Palestinian leader, but simply to demonstrate their rejection of Israel’s dictates.

The myth of Jewish control of international capital and US policy is still prevalent in Eastern Europe, even among the elites. This myth, which began as an attempt to discredit the Jews, now serves to encourage closer links with Israel, as the new nations seek to curry favour with the Americans and thus diminish their dependency on Germany, France, and even on the EU itself.

All these phenomena are echoes from the past. And it is exactly this past which the United States, mindful of the rising death toll among its troops in Iraq, is likely to try and use to persuade other countries to offer their young up for sacrifice on the altar of American foreign policy. Let non-Americans risk their lives instead of the Americans, even if the United States has to make some concessions to the UN in the process. The United States may want to exclude those who did not support the war from sharing in the war’s booty, but it has no problem with sending non- American youth to die in the aftermath of that same war.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.

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