Euro-American Proxy Wars

Just when I thought it was safe to claim that I am really actually very liberal in my politics, Saddam gets the rope and all of a sudden I am a conservative reactionary war-mongering swine all over again.

This time it's hard to say exactly how it happened. The occasion was the hanging of Saddam Hussein. My good friend the Cruel Mean Schinder (named that way because of the way he brutally forced me to run the marathon) were having a drink and he mentioned his outrage at the hanging, which threw all human rights to the wind.

In my American naivete, I said: "So? He's a dictator, a mass murderer and his crimes are not in doubt. Why keep him alive? Are you expecting him to write any great works of literature while he's in jail?"

Schinder: "That's so typical for you Americans. You'd kill everyone you don’t like if you could. Everyone in Europe is against the death penalty. The right thing to do would have been to send Saddam to the Hague. At least he would have had a fair trial."

Naïve American: "Why on earth would an Arabian country which newly won its own independence and is now ruled by the very people who were tormented by Saddam hand over their greatest arch-fiend to the Europeans? Are the Europeans the only ones in the world with the wisdom to do justice? Isn't that just a little bit presumptive?"

That was it.

Schinder: "You damned American running dog! You act like you rule the world, you waltz all over other people and their feelings, there has never been a bigger hypocrite than you and now I'm going to end it once and for all by dousing you in gasoline and setting you on fire right here in the middle of Berlin!"

I'm exaggerating here a little – he didn't actually use the term "running dog."

But he did give me a lecture that ranged from American imperialism to the CIA's support of right extremism in Chile to Bush's pact with the Devil. It's pretty amazing how much sheer American badness an average European can pack into a single run-on sentence of about 25 minutes. All I wanted to say was that if the Iraqis want to kill Saddam, let them kill him, people die everyday without Europeans getting upset about it in bars. But once again I somehow managed to maneuver myself onto the wrong end of European moral outrage.

Now, later, I realize that as a naïve American I had taken the conversation at face value: I thought we were just talking about the death of a mass murderer at the hands of his former victims. Once again, I forgot to read between the lines.

The conversation was really about America's and Europe 200-year-old struggle for moral leadership. The war has been going on since America did away with the aristocracy, which Europe had been trying and failing to do for centuries. That was a slap in the face. While we held high the banner of freedom and democracy, the Europeans stewed and looked for ways to regain the moral high ground. Well, Bush gave it to them on a silver platter.

Now, whenever you talk to a European about world politics, you really end up talking about how horrible America is compared to the morally upright Europeans. These discussions are very much like the so-called "proxy wars" of the Cold War, when the US sent troops to Vietnam when in fact the greater issue was really between the US and the USSR: Since we couldn’t fight directly, we fought by proxy.

We talk about the US in Iraq, but in fact we are talking about the relationship between Europe and the US. Europe feels insulted when the US doesn’t do what Europe wants, even though Europe is clearly older, wiser and morally superior; the US feels insulted when the Old World starts meddling in its affairs and that makes everything worse.

What bothers me about this is not that Europeans are pretentious and overbearing when it comes to their superior morals - there's nothing wrong with that. What bothers me, if I am to be honest, is that we Americans handed victory to them on a silver platter. Fighting it out with Bush on a moral battleground - hell, this is one war they can't help but win.

Comments