The Battle for Hearts and Minds
Europe won over by war’s success – Critics of U.S. now brimming with praise
Lucca, Italy — At a meeting of young, left-of-center political activists in northern Italy’s “Red Belt,” one would expect to hear fierce condemnation of Washington’s war on terrorism.
But in a setting that has long featured unrelenting anti-Americanism, not a word of criticism was leveled. In fact, the most insistent theme at the meeting, earlier this month, was a call for more U.S. intervention in Central Asia and the Middle East.
“Only America is powerful enough to establish the peace,” said Alessandro Fontana, a member of the Democrats of the Left, the renamed Italian Communist Party.
His comments underscore a remarkable turnabout on this side of the Atlantic.
To a degree unmatched in recent memory, the lightning conquest of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been paralleled by a huge U.S. propaganda victory in Europe, even in circles where hostility to U.S. policies abroad has been entrenched for half a century.
Recalling President Bush’s Sept. 12 promise that the U.S. military would “smoke the terrorists out of their holes” — a statement that many Europeans ridiculed at the time — the French daily Le Figaro noted Wednesday that “the actual outcome in Afghanistan was not very different from that.”
Differences remain, however, and they may become more apparent as the war on terrorism enters new phases.
Beneath the awestruck surface lies uneasiness over the Bush administration’s unilateral decisionmaking and emphatic reliance on lethal weaponry. In a speech last Monday, Britain’s defense chief, Adm. Michael Boyce, warned against the dangers of letting the war on terrorism become “a high- tech, 21st century posse in the new Wild West.”
Europeans also remain hostile to Washington’s plans for a new missile defense system, and the administration’s go-it-alone dismissal of proposed international treaties on global warming and chemical and biological arms.
And perhaps most important, despite the U.S. success against the Taliban, there is deep opposition in Europe to post-Afghanistan attacks on Iraq, Somalia or other suspects on the U.S. hit list of terrorist states.
The concern, according to the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, is that Washington will pressure its allies to back military strikes in countries where “the Americans have scores to settle.” Any such action is likely to provoke a wave of European popular anger.
But at least for the moment, there is broad approval for U.S. actions.
Such approval soared with the release Thursday of a videotape that appears to confirm Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes in New York and suburban Washington. In many cities, crowds of Christmas shoppers gathered to watch the footage on outdoor television screens.
“There’s no doubt about it now,” said Parisian architect Phillipe Mueller, watching the video. “The United States has been right all along.”
In a poll published Thursday by the newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur, 65 percent of the French public described themselves as pro-American, almost twice the figure registered in a 1996 survey.
Yet as recently as five weeks ago, with the initial phase of the anti- Taliban offensive apparently stalled, European commentators were predicting that U.S. forces would be bogged down for years in a demoralizing struggle against an implacable foe, with horrendous civilian casualties.
“We have had the same hand-wringing doubts about the effects of the same kind of bombing campaign” that accompanied the Kosovo war in 1999, wrote Paddy Ashdown, former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party, in the Sunday Observer. “There were the same wobbles from the same quarters invoking the same images of Vietnam — to say it would all end in disaster.”
Then came the sudden collapse of the Taliban — followed, just as suddenly, by an about-face in Europe’s coverage of the war and commentary on its pursuit.
Part of the change was due to televised scenes of Afghans celebrating their liberation from a harsh and dictatorial regime, and part to the discovery that “collateral damage” was far smaller than claimed by the Taliban.
“When the bombing of Afghanistan began, reports of civilian casualties had provoked serious concern in the public,” noted Madrid’s El Pais. “That served as the principal argument against (American) intervention.”
By Thursday, El Pais was featuring a heroic profile of Abdul Ali, an Afghan journalist who served as a forward spotter for U.S. bombing raids on Kandahar, where local doctors confirm that fewer civilians than had been thought died in more than a month of air attacks.
The sheer and unexpectedly rapid success of the war seems to explain much of the abrupt change in tone. On Nov. 13, for instance, the left-learning French daily Liberation published an interview with a veteran of the Russian war in Afghanistan characterizing U.S. bombing raids as “acts of vengeance” that would accomplish no purpose.
That very day, the Taliban fled Kabul. Last week, Liberation was reporting “every (doubt) toppled in mid-November — vindicating a military strategy that overwhelmed the fire of its critics.”
The most vociferous of those critics had been in Germany, led by pacifist members of the Green Party. Today, according to the daily Frankfurter Rundschau, the loudest German protests against the United States are mounted by small neo-Nazi fringe groups that identify with the Taliban’s totalitarian philosophy.
By the time Kandahar fell on Dec. 7, the main thrust of European opinion had shifted to undisguised admiration for American military efficiency — and soul-searching over Europe’s own paralysis in the face of earlier challenges in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
“As a mirror of the American capacity for reaction to unforeseen crisis, the events of Sept. 11 have provided grounds for astonishment,” the prestigious Paris daily Le Monde commented on the day Kandahar fell.
“By comparison, Europe appears to be a giant ensnared in its own rules and procedures.”
“America is far from perfect,” commented Dominique Moisi, adjunct director of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “It has blundered through arrogance, selfishness, cynicism, and a great deal through ignorance.
“”But without America, the history of humanity in the 20th century would have been infinitely more tragic.”