Flogging the French

By Nicholas D. Kristof
January 31, 2003

Ah, for the halcyon days of a year ago, when we fretted about why Arabs hate us. Now the question is: Why does everybody hate us?

The European edition of Time magazine has been conducting a poll on its Web site: "Which country poses the greatest danger to world peace in 2003?" With 318,000 votes cast so far, the responses are: North Korea, 7 percent; Iraq, 8 percent; the United States, 84 percent.

O.K., it's just an Internet poll and not worth the pixels it's not printed on. Sure, the Poles and Portuguese may still dance with us. But if there were an extra spot on the axis of evil, the world would vote us in. Somehow, in a year's time, we've become Iraq.

John le Carré put it this way in a (representatively venomous) essay this month in The Times of London: "America has entered one of its periods of historic madness, but this is the worst I can remember."

So what should we make of this? Does it matter that we've somehow morphed in public perceptions from the world's only superpower to the world's super-rogue state?

Of course it matters.

The macho notion that we'll do what we choose and if the world doesn't like it, it can go [insert expletive here] is both ludicrous and dangerous. We mustn't become slaves to foreign opinion, but neither should we glibly dismiss it as we prepare to launch a war that will hugely aggravate this distemper - which will nurture more terrorism.

One example: In 1991 the U.S. leaned on Saudi Arabia to let us keep military bases there after the gulf war. We ignored its concerns about public opinion because the bases would improve our security.

Wrong. In fact the bases radicalized many young Saudis, and persuaded Osama bin Laden to turn his sights on the U.S. What seemed a shrewd move to improve our security ended up undermining our friends and strengthening our enemies.

Moreover, while the lack of allied support won't prevent us from getting into a war with Iraq, it may prevent us from getting out. The U.S. sees its role as the globe's SWAT team, but after we have ousted Saddam and whistled for the cleanup crew it's not clear that the allies will want to help. Nor will they pay the bill for this Iraq war as they did the last one. Each time Don Rumsfeld insults Europe, it costs us another $20 billion.

It's also possible that if all your friends say you're making a mistake, they're not mendacious back-stabbers but simply right. As Kipling said: "trust yourself when all men doubt you / But make allowance for their doubting too."

In fairness, I also have to say that President Bush is right that we must reserve the option of invading countries unilaterally. Think back to 1993, when we let European passivity, particularly by John Major and Fran├žois Mitterrand, block military strikes in Yugoslavia until tens of thousands of people had been killed. In retrospect we should have ignored the Europeans and unilaterally attacked Serbia to stop the genocide. Ditto in Rwanda. But in Iraq there is no such urgency.

Of course the anti-Americanism is unfair. It's particularly irritating coming from the French, who pandered shamelessly to Baghdad during the 1990's to get oil-for-food contracts, thus undermining containment and creating today's crisis.

Yes, the French can be exasperating. Years ago I worked for a summer on a French farm, and my boss constantly denounced the English as penible - tiresome - so one day I asked why. "Because they fought us at Waterloo!" he stormed, arms flailing. "If Napoleon had been left alone, he could have created a common market 150 years ago. It was penible of them to resist!"

But just because the French can be penible doesn't mean they are always wrong. The French and Germans have a real argument against invading Iraq - that containment and deterrence are better than invasion. While it's fair to disagree, it's puerile to refuse to listen.

The most sensible suggestion for confronting anti-Americanism comes from one prominent American official: "It really depends on how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us."

That was George W. Bush in the second presidential debate. He was dead right - back then.