Scott McConnell writes every other week in Taki's Top Drawer/NY Press
Scott McConnell's NY Press Columns (archive)
January 24, 2001
In a few days, my eldest daughter will board a plane at Kennedy and fly off to a spring semester's study in Europe. Besides the normal parental fears, I have other worries as well.
Americans of each generation travel abroad in different contexts, the way they are viewed colored by their country's place and standing in the world. Despite America's dominant global role in popular culture, technology and business, the reception of them today may be the coldest ever.
When I spent months in France in my 20s, the Cold War was the backdrop to nearly everything. I read the French political press, liked to talk politics. But even had I not, the French would have taken me, for better or worse, as a representative of a country perceived as big and rich, simpleminded in its culture, unsophisticated in its diplomacy. But also as stalwart in the great political battle of the time–over whether the future would belong to capitalist democracy, or some form, more likely than not dictatorial, of Marxism. The outcome then seemed much in doubt, and most Frenchmen, beneath layers of reservation, were on the same side.
Well, the West, the capitalist West, has won. America has won. The Soviet Union, home base to the Marxist coalition, sworn enemy of freedom, collapsed and left the field. In Europe, the Communist parties have shrunk, changed their names and often outlooks. American military and financial power–guarantor of the international system the Beltway pundits hail as "benevolent global hegemony"–for the moment has no real match.
But that power now represents something ugly and threatening, at least so it seems to a growing number of the world's peoples.
Europe's press buzzes with stories about depleted uranium weapons, used heavily in Washington's air war against the Serbs. The projectiles, effective because uranium is heavy and able to penetrate tank armor, are officially deemed not radioactive–no more dangerous than the background radon often found in American homes, according to one apologist quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Such assurances are belied by the internal NATO "hazard awareness" document issued after the bombing, advising that soldiers patrolling where DU weapons have landed be given warnings; that those entering vehicles hit by DU shells should wear masks, cover exposed skin and receive follow-up monitoring for radiation exposure. Clusters of leukemia and lymphoma have sprung up among NATO troops stationed in areas of intense DU bombardment.
This sudden uproar over America's use of these semi-nonconventional weapons in the Balkans represents an awakening of Europe's guilty conscience–as if to say to Washington, "When you bombed Serbia, we kept silent, even went along as you smashed churches, destroyed bridges, bombed hospitals, poisoned the Danube, all the while reluctant to put at risk a single one of your own soldiers in the battlefield. You have left behind a toxic wasteland. It won't happen again."
Ten years ago, Iraq received an American DU bombardment far more intense than Yugoslavia. In Europe at least, recognition of the long-term cost of that bombardment is beginning to emerge. In London's The Independent, Robert Fisk describes the horrible toll of cancers and birth defects around Basra, subject to heavy U.S. shelling in the last days of the war. A decade of sanctions has created more misery. Four years ago, Madeleine Albright was asked on 60 Minutes whether she was troubled by the estimate that half a million Iraqi children had perished as a result of the sanctions. "We think the price is worth it," she cheerfully replied. That toll is growing still.
Against the backdrop of America as a superpower whose bomb-bay doors are always open, lesser questions fester. Trade disagreements turn into rancorous accusations of protectionism. Few in Europe admire the campaign of Sen. D'Amato and others to demonize and harass Switzerland for its wartime neutrality. The indictment against the Swiss (over policies the Allies much appreciated during the war itself) is masterfully dissected by Angelo Codevilla in his eye-opening Between the Alps and a Hard Place, an important work that portrays the levers of American diplomacy rented out to campaign contributors and groups pursuing private agendas. Polls in Europe now show 60 to 70 percent of the populace feels that America is unfriendly to their interests. What a turnabout since the Cold War. What a change since V-E Day!
Of course it's not just Europe. Harvard Prof. Samuel Huntington reports in Foreign Affairs that surveys of elite opinion in two thirds of the world's societies, including Chinese, Russians, Indians, Arabs, Muslims and Africans, show that the United States is now regarded as the greatest single external threat.
Bombardment with depleted uranium weapons; murderous economic sanctions; moralistic preachments about democracy and the historical failings of other countries; a military whose technological dominance is so complete it has no need for the soldier's valor: these now are constituent elements of a portrait of today's American. It is a portrait of an Ugly American, and it breaks my heart to imagine it hung around the neck of my beautiful daughter.
January 24, 2001