Sunday, February 25, 2007

We love you really

Protests against US foreign policy are often wrongly interpreted as anti-Americanism, which could be the seeds of a crisis for the European left.

Ben Hammersley - CiF

You know you're doing badly when even your best mates start to wander off. On Wednesday we saw Italy lose its government over its support for US foreign policy; the UK has announced that it's pulling its troops out of Iraq just as the Americans are throwing more in; Denmark is pulling most of theirs out too. If you were American, you might start to take this all a bit personally.

And therein could be the seeds of a crisis for the European left. Because just as any criticism of Israel is invariably called anti-semitism, criticism of Bush's policies will be called, very soon, anti-Americanism. With that we risk a "nobody-likes-us, everybody-hates-us, down in the garden eating worms" American government. One that uses its lack of popular support abroad as proof it's on the right track. With the forthcoming election campaigns, we have to be careful that apparent isolation doesn't turn into exceptionalism and unilateral action by an American public under the impression that a lack of support somehow equates to hostility.

The route to such a risky state is quite simple. As the Telegraph reported earlier this month, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer equated criticism of America with aiding terrorism " ... but America's enemies take comfort from continual attacks on America by America's friends," he said. "Before you leap out there and vigorously attack America, think about the consequences of what you're saying."

From there it's an easy rhetorical step for the American right to say "and therefore the more you criticise us about the way we handle ourselves, the more we're going to have to do it our way". From rendition flights to kidnappings off European streets by the CIA, campaigns by the European left against the US's actions need to be tempered to refer specifically to the government's actions, and not the country as a whole. Every generalisation, every snarky comment about dumb A'murkins, every demonstration without specific target actually strengthens the very people the left don't like.

As John Hooper wrote on Wednesday the arguments over the Italy-US relationship has put Prodi, and the country, into a typically Italian political crisis, but it's not really one that actually has anything to do with the US. It just looks that way from anywhere else, and certainly from Washington. As the picture above shows, the demonstration in Vicenza last weekend that kicked the crisis off was ostensibly anti-American - a point emphasised by the US embassy in Rome, who warned all Americans in Vicenza to stay indoors for fear of violence against them.

In reality though, the protest was only against the US foreign policy (specifically their desire to open a US air force base just outside the city.) Speaker after speaker on the stage in Vicenza spoke about loving Americans, but disagreeing with their president. As Europeans we need to point this out a lot more, lest we find that someone who thinks they have no friends left to lose usually stops listening entirely.

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