Saturday, February 15, 2003

The View From Switzerland

A new poll finds that 71 percent of Swiss people believe the Bush Administration is responsible for the September 11th attacks. How could such an educated and cosmopolitan sample of European society be so completely deluded? I think it’s because they want to believe it.

I have several friends in Switzerland. They grew up in New York but have pretty much gone native in Europe. They sometimes provide interesting insights into global events because of their American background and European perspective. On issues of Israel, Iraq and George Bush we are at total odds.

The most striking difference I’ve noticed between Europe and North America is that anti-Semitism, like chain smoking, is far more acceptable in polite company in Europe than it is here. Over lunch, a Swiss acquaintance of one friend once offered up that “yes, it’s a shame that Israelis are being murdered . . .but they are so, you know, aggressive.”

More recently I’ve heard what must be the mainstream Swiss view on the American response to Iraq as filtered through my friends. According to this view the US is deeply concerned about being isolated in the world and as a result Bush is acting from a deep sense of insecurity having backed himself into a corner.

Of course, to anyone who truly knows America this doesn’t ring true. This is a European perspective.

The United States has always taken pride in being the exception to the world order. Indeed it is the basis of our national identity. Regardless of whether it is the US or a part of Europe that is increasingly isolated, the United States is far more comfortable being the odd man out, more likely to view self-reliance as a virtue, more likely to see isolation as validation.

As for the idea that the Bush Administration is acting out of insecurity, well that’s a dangerously parochial misinterpretation of reality. Dangerous because this government is at war and any misreading of intentions is likely to have deadly consequences. Anyway, I find it hard to believe that anyone familiar with Donald Rumsfeld would think he suffers from insecurity.

I think the Europeans still don’t quite understand that French and Belgian intransigence resistance makes George Bush more popular and more determined . . . not less. They don’t quite get it that the United Nations has never had much prestige in the United States and today is close to being viewed as an instrument of conflict rather than peace.

The New York Times carries a quote today that bears this out and while it specifically refers to France, I think it’s fair to assume that it applies to many Europeans. “Equality,” says the French author Phillippe Roger, “is as important, if not more important, than freedom to the French.”

Americans understand that there is inherent conflict between liberte and egalite and taken together they certainly don’t produce fraternite . . . they produce The Terror.

While American governments work to create equal opportunities, European politics is about ensuring equal outcomes and that is at odds with freedom. Equal outcomes do not occur naturally . . . they must be enforced.

With any hope, Act Two of Operation Enduring Freedom will jolt naïve Europeans into the 21st century when they realize they were not just wrong about American intentions . . . but spectacularly so.

But I doubt it.

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