The Magazine

The Brits Are All Right

Except for their wobbly elites.

Sep 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 02 • By PETER D. FEAVER
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Cambridge, England

THE TERRORISTS wanted a war with America and they will get one, though they erred if they thought it would be the kind of pin-prick, slap-on-the-wrist war the United States has waged of late. Rather it will be the sustained, root-and-branch kind of war the United States tends to win.

It may even be a world war, with the United States once more leading a global alliance of democracies and civilized societies. The early responses from governments around the world are encouraging. Rapid pledges of support, buttressed by an outpouring of public sentiment, mean that America will not have to fight alone. But there is reason to worry about the mettle of our allies, and a closer look at our staunchest, the United Kingdom, illustrates the point.

On the positive side, no leader was quicker than Prime Minister Tony Blair to understand the global significance of September 11. Even before anyone knew whether the attack was over, Blair publicly jumped into the American foxhole with some of the most stirring rhetoric this war has yet seen: "This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We, therefore, here in Britain, stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy and we like them will not rest until this evil is driven from our world."

Blair’s early pledge has been backed up by similar statements by other allies (including the French) and by concrete measures, not the least of which is NATO’s pledge of Article 5 support: The attack on the United States is legally viewed by our European allies as an attack on all of NATO. And, of course, Blair and others are reflecting the sentiment of their general populations, which have been stirred to show unprecedented demonstrations of support for Americans. Even the queen has jumped on the bandwagon: Two days after the attack and for the first time ever, her band played the "Star Spangled Banner" at the ceremonial Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

But the initial response in the British media also points to a potential Achilles’ heel in the emerging global alliance against terrorism: the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of much of Britain (and Europe’s) intellectual and media elite.

The terrible news reached London in mid-afternoon. Understandably, an initial detached horror soon gave way to concern that targets in London might also be attacked. As this concern abated, the pundit class took up the task of interpreting the day’s events and explaining the "deeper meanings," which they have been doing at great volume ever since, and in too many cases, exposing a visceral and largely uninformed dislike of the United States and especially the current American president. To be sure, anti-Americanism appeared only in some of the commentary, and even then it was qualitatively different from the unalloyed hatred that motivated the terrorists themselves. But it is troubling all the same, and shows up in three errors common to much of the British "expert" commentary on the events.

The first error is to declare that this attack proves the bankruptcy of Bush’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. This shows up most often in commentary asking, "Do Americans understand why they are hated?" One particularly odious piece published days after the attack clucked that Americans still "simply don’t get it." The shocking underlying assumption seems to be that the hatred of the terrorists tells us more about the object of their hatred than about the moral condition of the terrorists and those who sympathize with them. As if the fundamental question had been what the Jews did to provoke Hitler.

Another commentator drew sharp contrasts between the "vigorous engagement" of the Clinton administration and the "stunning" reversal and "isolationism" of the Bush administration and as much as said that it was the latter that caused the terrorist attack. Of course, if this terrorist attack is proven linked to the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, then, if anything, the deep cause of the attack is precisely the "vigorous engagement" the commentator celebrated. As is now clear to most observers—including Clinton administration officials in candid, offthe-record moments—the peace process broke down because the Clinton administration tried to impose a negotiated settlement on an Arafat unwilling to accept peace. The commentators conveniently forget that the peace process shattered irretrievably long before Bush became president. None of the Bush critics has produced a single workable concrete proposal showing how more vigorous outside involvement (more vigorous than Clinton’s?) will help.