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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2003
TALLAHASSEE -- A Pentagon honcho named Thomas K. Jones once scared everybody witless by saying the nation could recover easily from a nuclear war "if there are enough shovels to go around." From that day to this, nothing has been so disconcerting as the present advice (from the same government that let Osama bin Laden get away) to protect ourselves from terrorism with plastic sheeting and duct tape.
The plastic might do some good, though, if it could somehow filter out the Texas testosterone that is overcoming good manners these days.
It appears to much of the rest of the world, as to many Americans, that George Bush and his drum-beaters are entirely too eager for war. His first thought was to do it, ostensibly to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions, without even consulting the Council. Now he's threatening to go ahead even if, for reasons right or wrong, the Council opposes him. The lame attempt to link Saddam Hussein to bin Laden reinforced perceptions that with Bush, any excuse will do.
Just as harmful, if not worse, is the intolerance spewing out of Washington -- and, by bad example, from the rest of the country -- toward the nations that don't agree. The more arrogant the United States comes across, the harder it becomes to persuade others that our purpose is about principle, not oil.
Spain begs President to restrain Rumsfeld, headlined a story in the Times of London the other day, quoting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a supporter of the American position. "I did tell the president," Aznar said, "that we need a lot of Powell and not much of Rumsfeld . . . The more Powell speaks and the less Rumsfeld speaks, that wouldn't be a bad thing altogether."
After slamming France and Germany as "old Europe," Rumsfeld even more recklessly compared Germany's "do nothing" approach to the policies of Libya and Cuba.
With examples such as that, it's little wonder that so many lesser politicians, media figures and private citizens are giving voice to a hateful chauvinism against the people of France which they (never mind their government) do not deserve, and which debases the United States more than it harms them.
It bears keeping in mind that the people of Europe not only have much more personal experience with war than Americans do, but that they are also a lot closer to where this war would be fought. France, in particular, has a large Islamic population to worry about. Though Jacques Chirac's position is at least as much about power as principle, the people of France, Germany and especially Great Britain have their own entirely legitimate objections, many of which are inflamed by America's inability to disagree without being disagreeable.
While I was in France for a week last month, I did not encounter a single instance of the unpopularity of the American position being held against Americans as individuals or even as a people. ("Non Bush" signs were the typical expression. I also saw some anti-McDonald's slogans, but those are hardly new.) My wife, who has been teaching in Paris since September, has met no hostility either. The French, she said, distinguish between issues and peoples.
But how long can that last? The word is getting back about the pointless American boycotts of French wine, cheese and restaurants (many owned by American citizens), the ugly remarks in the press, and of stories such as a French visitor being advised to say she's Canadian "because we don't like the French here." A young instructor at the Sorbonne remarked sadly to my wife that "you (Americans) think we're dirty pigs."
If nothing else, we might at least remember that but for the French fleet at Yorktown our national anthem would be God Save the Queen. That we repaid the debt in two world wars and with the Marshall Plan does not entitle us to forget it.
It is not new, of course, for American patriotism to come with a chip on its shoulder. A visitor to America wrote of it this way: "As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured in it; for it is not only his country that is then attacked, it is himself . . .
"Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A stranger may be well inclined to praise many of the institutions of their country, but he begs permission to blame some things in it, a permission that is inexorably refused. America is therefore a free country in which, lest anybody should be hurt by your remarks, you are not allowed to speak freely of private individuals or of the state, of the citizens or of the authorities, of public or of private undertakings, or, in short, of anything at all except, perhaps, the climate and the soil; and even then Americans will be found ready to defend both as if they had co-operated in producing them."
That was Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, writing in 1835. His Democracy in America remains one of the great foundations of American studies both here and abroad.