A world of uncertainty

Launching his air strikes against Afghanistan, President Bush claimed to be supported by 'the collective will of the world'. The international press response to the attacks reveals a more shaky support.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Launching US air strikes on Afghanistan on 7 October, US President George W Bush claimed that the USA was supported by ‘the collective will of the world’. True, the leaders of a broad world coalition – including not only old allies in the United Nations, but also Russia and Pakistan – had pledged their support.

But a look at how the press responded to the air strikes shows a world united only by uncertainty. Few condemned the attacks – but few were staunch supporters. Above all, there was trepidation about the long, difficult and unclear conflict that lay ahead.

This could best be seen in the USA itself, which seems to be
gripped with fear of a repeat terrorist attack on American land. The Hartford Courant editorial might have been optimistic and triumphalist – ‘The United States is too big and too strong to be intimidated by the likes of the Taliban. Americans are united as rarely before in their support of Operation Enduring Freedom. They and their friends abroad are determined to rid the world of the al-Qaeda virus’ (1) – but few of the rest were as convinced.

One comment article in the Boston Globe foresaw a war that will be ‘especially hard’: ‘It is being conducted with long supply lines in unfamiliar, forbidding territory. It almost surely will not end with a triumphal celebration, like VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. It requires constant vigilance and surveillance. Final success remains elusive….’ (2)

A Boston Globe report said that the US public had reacted to military action with a ‘variety of emotions’: ‘Most supported the start of the air strikes, though some were grim. Others were sceptical, nearly everyone feared retaliation, but very few expressed outright opposition to America’s new war. Many were uncertain of what comes next.’ (3)

A New York Times report noted a similar absence of ‘triumphal satisfaction’ among Americans. Although chants of ‘USA, USA’ went up at an Atlanta Falcons game when the news broke, ‘people in smaller groups and in individual conversations expressed a profound unease about the potential for new terrorist strikes now that the battle had been engaged’.

One American expressed the dilemma: ‘Obviously we need to do something’ – ‘but going and bombing scares me because of what other Muslim countries might do. I think we’re right, but they don’t like us much over there, and it scares me that they are going to retaliate in this country. Terrorists could strike anywhere, even here in the middle of nowhere; they could strike and people will feel if it happens here, it can happen anywhere. It’s psychological warfare’ (4).

Also in the New York Times, a professor of Middle East and international affairs wrote that Muslims were still suspicious of US motives: the US ‘case for war against terrorist networks has not been effectively communicated to Arabs and Muslims’. He called for the USA to undertake the ‘painful and frustrating, but critical, work of building bridges to Muslim peoples and societies. This task requires cultural sensitivity, understanding and full political and economic engagement with the Muslim world’ (5).

A columnist for the Chicago Tribune confessed his uncertainty about the attacks, describing the ‘cold empty feeling’ in his stomach: ‘fear’ (6). But he rallied himself with the thought of the Founding Fathers who, ‘by their signatures on the Declaration of Independence…risked everything and measured their own necks for a hangman’s rope. They did what had to be done’. Today, he said, ‘we can’t allow ourselves to give into panic and to bleating’, as if trying to convince himself.

But conjuring up the ghosts of the Founding Fathers only highlights how Americans today are reluctant to ‘risk everything’ for their country – with even some members of the armed forces admitting that they didn’t expect active service.

Writing in the UK Financial Times, Wolfgang Munchau noted a similar ambivalence in Germany about the war (7). Despite the official German support for the US actions, the public is ‘wary of retaliation’; ‘public opinion is torn between a desire to support the US and a distrust of American foreign policy’. The reason for this ambivalence, he says, is the politics of the ‘Third Way’: ‘Germany sees itself as neither communist nor capitalist, neither pro- nor anti-US.’

‘This Germany will probably never be on the wrong side of a just war. But it will never be on the right side, either’, he concludes, and advises Washington not to ‘stretch [their] loyalty too far’.

The German Frankfurter Allgemeine downplayed the significance of the military strikes as ‘the last, most dramatic option, but probably not the most important’. The USA, and its ‘partners and allies in Europe’, would fight ‘with all the political, diplomatic and military means at its disposal’, said the paper. But it gave a leaden description of the upcoming conflict, as ‘a long, drawn-out campaign fought on several fronts’. ‘Predicting its end and making judgements on its success is an almost impossible task.’ (8)

In Japan, it seems that opinion is also uncertain – settling in the ‘grey area’ of neither for nor against. The Asahi Shimbun editorial quotes columnist Yukichi Amano as saying ‘The choice of not siding with either camp doesn’t seem to be an option for people who hate war as much as they hate terrorism….This is a scary situation.’

The editorial in the paper continues: ‘It would be simple if everything in the world could be classified as right or wrong, black or white. But experience shows this is not the case. Nor does this simplistic moral dichotomy offer an effective approach to the question of how to fight terrorism. There is a broad grey area that includes the position of hating both war and terrorism.’ (9) Although the editorial called for people in this grey area ‘ to be involved in the efforts to find a solution’, it was vague about what this might be: ‘There is probably no quick solution. The process will inevitably take a long time.’

Despite the Japanese uncertainty about US military action, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani wins full support. One Asahi Shimbun comment piece quotes Sadahei Kusumoto, ‘a longtime resident in the United States and honorary chairman of the major camera maker Minolta’s American subsidiary’, who sees Giuliani’s work on the frontline in Confucian capitalist terms: ‘When the boss identifies so closely with his subordinates…it can never fail to raise their morale at work.’ (10)

In Spain, an El Pais editorial looked ahead to a conflict that would be ‘long and complex’. But the piece also offered a European perspective, arguing that developments of links between the USA and the EU had helped to gain the ‘necessary international legality and legitimacy’ for the US actions (11). The article concluded on a positive note: that the conflict had broken the isolationism of the USA, with the prospect of a ‘more just’ world increasingly governed by new international institutions.

The Jerusalem Post in Israel was one of the few staunch supporters of US action, offering praise that bordered on sycophancy: ‘In a masterful address to the American people, the leader of the free world spelled out clearly and concisely the aims of yesterday’s strikes against the Taliban.’ (12)

Few papers in the USA or Europe were able to describe Bush’s murky and open-ended war plan in these terms. But, being Israel, there were national interests at work here, too: ‘A war against terror and the countries that sponsor it cannot ignore the war of terrorism that Palestinian groups, backed by a number of Arab states and the Palestinian Authority, have launched against Israel over this past year.’

Kathimerini, the international English language newspaper in Greece, offered praise for the end of isolationism: ‘our world has become smaller, more interrelated. The myopic logic of national isolationism and regional blocs, as well as the unfettered optimism of those who thought that the invisible hand of the free market alone could guarantee a fairer world order, are history’ (13). Unlike Asahi Shimbun, the paper seemed convinced by the rhetoric of good versus evil, concluding that ‘This is not the dividing line between different civilisations, but between the human civilisation and barbarity.’

Australia, meanwhile, is on the verge of elections. One opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald insisted that the beginning of hostilities should not distract from the political process. He noted that ‘There were two federal elections during World War I – September 1914 (before the first Australian imperial force went overseas) and May 1917 (at a time when Australians were suffering horrific losses on the Western Front).

‘Another two during World War II – September 1940 (when Australia was supporting Britain at a time of US neutrality) and August 1943 (when tens of thousands of Australians were prisoners of the Japanese).’ (14) And in all of these cases, ‘the enemy was substantially more significant than any force which Australians may confront inside Afghanistan’. ‘If Armageddon were here, Australia would surely be contributing more than 150 front-line troops to engage the enemy. That’s the (non-hyperbolic) truth.’

But another Sydney Morning Herald commentator was more cautious, doubting the durability of pro-war feelings. Although he noted a ‘certain sense of euphoria that the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocity were getting theirs, right up their Khyber Pass’, he predicted that this would only last ‘until we see the first body bag heading home, or the forces of Osama bin Laden strike back’ (15). He was also worried about the lack of Australian influence within the war coalition – asking whether they had handed over their troops with an ‘absolutely blank cheque to the Americans’.

New Zealand‘s preoccupations post-7 October were more self-absorbed. The New Zealand Herald‘s editorial noted that Blair had recognised Australia and Canada as US allies in the action – ‘and ignored New Zealand’ (16). ‘Once we were regarded as a valued member of the international community, punching above our weight’, lamented the article. ‘Now, we are an irrelevance.’ The editorial called for the New Zealand government to ‘re-evaluate its defence policy and spending priorities. National security does not come cheaply, but the alternative is untenable’.

No doubt these national machinations lie at the back of the minds of many of those close to the USA in this coalition against terrorism (not least UK prime minister Tony Blair, who seems to be making a bit of a name for himself); it is just that they make sure that grandiose statements about humanity, good and evil come out of their mouth.

But while the politicians pontificate, the world crouches in wait – anxiety, rather than ‘for’ or ‘against’ being the overwhelming sentiment. And as the war unfolds, ignoring this sentiment will no longer be possible.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

(1) Bin Laden Will Not Win, Hartford Courant, 8 October 2001

(2) Retaliation may be underway, but victory is distant, Boston Globe, 8 October 2001

(3) US move inspires support, and fear, Boston Globe, 8 October 2001

(4) Sunday of Muted Cheers and Renewed Fears, New York Times, 8 October 2001

(5) A Time of Reckoning, New York Times, 8 October 2001

(6) Facing the fear, conquering it is everyone’s task, Chicago Tribune, 8 October 2001

(7) Germany’s hard choices in a war against terror, Financial Times, 7 October 2001

Time’s Up, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 7 October 2001

(9) Cool-headedness in order in responses to terrorism, Asahi Shimbun, 8 October 2001

(10) Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s exemplary service, Asahi Shimbun, 8 October 2001

(11) Legítima defensa, El Pais, 8 October 2001

(12) The broader battle, Jerusalem Post, 8 October 2001

(13) Antibodies of freedom, Kathimerini, 8 October 2001

(14) Cold hand of history writes a tougher tale, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October 2001

(15) In this game of war, some participants sit on the bench, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October 2001

(16) Indefensible defence policy, New Zealand Herald, 9 October 2001

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Topics Politics


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