Satan doesn’t wear sweaty socks

Jan. 19, 2002

by Matthew Parris

I love America. I love the place and I love the people. I admire the country as a nation. I spent two years as a postgraduate studying at Yale on a fellowship paid for by an American philanthropist, and assimilated fast.
I like their warmth, their courage, their vision. I like their individualism, energy and capitalist spirit; and I like their deep belief in liberty. You will not find a readier apologist for American values or the American way of life.

So if I sound a note of warning about the United States as a political ally, do not write me off as one of those sour European lefties with a grudge against Uncle Sam. I am a pro-American British Conservative.

My difficulty is not with America as America, but with Washington as a hoped-for coalition partner. Partnership in foreign policy is not in their nature. Consensus is not in their lexicon. They do not see their place in our world as we would do. America is either right outside, or right on top. For Americans, alongside is not an option.

My first encounter with this truth came at Yale in the 1970s. A group of us were talking about oil prices and Saudi Arabia. My friend Dave McCormack, a spirited Southerner from Charleston, had pointed out that while US hegemony protected producers from the Russians, US technology enabled Arabs to extract their oil, and US demand created the market in which to sell it. “It’s our oil, goddammit!” Dave roared.

He meant it. When Ronald Reagan remarked of the Panama Canal: “We built it; it’s ours; and we’re going to keep it,” he was tapping into the same vein.

The vein runs deep. It is not unusually greedy; and not, in any malignant way, bullying. It is a simple conviction that America will decide. Her citizens do not see her as one country among many but as nonpareil, the biggest, the best, the one-and-only: final judge of her own interests and a pretty fair judge of what’s good for the rest of us too.

None of this is inconsistent with a strong sense of justice: a sense of justice characterises America at home and abroad, but it will be their justice and they will be the arbiters. Nor is it inconsistent with a wish to do good abroad: no people have shown such a consistently generous ambition to make our world a better place.

But their help will be given ex gratia and its terms dictated by them. America will save the planet if America must, and it will pay the piper: but it will then call the tune. A negotiated process of cooperation is not what America has in mind.

It seems to me that the past century of international affairs points this lesson in no very shaded way. British dreams of a transatlantic marriage of interests are always being dashed, yet still hope triumphs over experience. My earliest political memory is Suez, a debacle on which it is unnecessary to elaborate. Succeeding memories are of a colonial boyhood in Southern Rhodesia.

The United States was running her own clear policy in Southern Africa at the time and it was unfriendly to British interests and our gradualist approach to decolonisation. The American Reading Room in Salisbury (now Harare) was a focal point for impatient young African nationalists whom America was eager to befriend before the Russians did.

Washington may have been right. My point is that it would not have occurred to them to reconsider if we had not agreed. Twenty years later the Queen was actually head of state in Grenada when America invaded the Caribbean island, to the acute discomfiture of Sir Geoffrey Howe, our Foreign Secretary. Tory Eurosceptics, ever-vigilant for threats from an alliance in whose policies we do have a say, carelessly recommend one where we don’t.

Now that President Bush has signed up Tony Blair as British Robin to the American Batman, is there reason to think these verities have been suspended? The question is not posed rhetorically, for there are some reasons for hope. Terrorism is, after all, against all our interests.

But how we define terrorism, where we diagnose it, and to what resorts we think it right to go in combating it, are debates in which we Europeans and the United States may find our preferred positions sliding apart. I think that slide began this week, as the unsavoury pantomime took to the stage in Guantanamo Bay.

Take Donald Rumsfeld’s angry brushing aside of concerns about the treatment of prisoners, an outburst which, from the Prime Minister down, members of the British Government have been trying to sidle past, looking the other way. Said the US Defence Secretary: “I do not feel the slightest concern at their treatment. They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else.” In a saloon bar this will do, but is that the standard? How much does the Secretary of State really know about these individuals? And why are they not prisoners of war? Face it: Mr Rumsfeld does not care about the niceties and cares little who knows it. Washington’s way of “fighting terror” is not, despite appearances, the same as Britain’s. We seek to project the message that there are rules to which all nations are subject. America has a simpler message: kill Americans, and you’re dead meat.

The British Foreign Office may huff and puff that US swagger is “counterproductive”, alienating “moderate Arab opinion”, but Washington proposes a different approach: show them who’s boss.

America — not Britain, Europe and America and not “the international community”, but America — is boss. On this analysis Rumsfeld with his visual aids — cages, razor-wire, manacles and sedating syringes — is not maladroit: he’s on message. Be sure that frantic private telegrams are winging their way over the Atlantic explaining the embarrassment this is causing Mr Blair. Be equally sure where Mr Bush is putting them.

America has simple gods and likes to keep her satan simple, too. Every populace has a tendency to see for a while evidence of a single demon’s fiendish plans beneath every stone, but Americans take this to extremes. In Salem it was once witches. In Senator Joe McCarthy’s heyday it was Commies. Now it is al-Qaeda. And September 11 offered tremendous provocation.

Of the brutality and ill-intent of the United States’ fundamentalist foe there can be no doubt, nor of the righteousness of American wrath. But this does not make their assessment of the foe accurate.

We are told on very little evidence that the al-Qaeda network is incredibly sophisticated, yet the things we know it has done have been relatively crude, the technology modest.

We are told (and the slavishness of the British press in printing this unquestioned is depressing) that al-Qaeda “masterminds” are at work here — in London, Leicester, or wherever else some fundamentalist nutcase with nasty ambitions and contacts abroad is found in a bedsit. But in the claimed evil genius about whom we do know a bit, Richard Reid, we see little to justify the term. This imbecile is about as inconspicuous as a bag-lady. He has been attracting suspicion wherever he goes. When he flies El Al it puts a marshal in the adjacent seat. He couldn’t even devise a way of detonating his own shoes, short of bending down in his aeroplane seat, with passengers around, and trying to set fire with matches to a foot-sweaty fuse. Why didn’t he go into the loo? If this really is the cream of al-Qaeda then things are less dire than we feared.

You, reader, will have furrowed your brow about some of this already.

So will a million others. A silent minority used likewise to wonder if half the village really were witches; if the goofy clerk at work really was a key communist spy. Of course al-Qaeda exists; of course it is numerous; of course it is murderous; of course it must be fought. But it is not the only, and may not even be the cleverest, terrorist organisation in the world.

Suicide bombing is as old as the bomb, and dangerous prisoners who would stop at nothing have been transported and held in custody since courts and prisons were invented.

This is not the greatest evil the world has ever seen, nor the cleverest, nor the first — and nor, certainly, will it be the last.

But America is moving into a phase of believing so, and America is apt to throw her weight around.

It may go to some lengths and last some time. We should hang back.

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