The Americal Idol
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN - Nov 6, 2002BERLIN
If you think Germany is turning anti-American, pay attention to what happened here last month when the president visited Berlin. No, not President Bush — President Clinton. Mr. Clinton, who helped unveil the refurbished Brandenburg Gate, was swarmed as Germans clamored to see, hear or shake hands with him. Elvis was in the house.
If Mr. Bush visited Germany today there would also be street riots — the sort they use tear gas to control.
Why the difference? In fairness to Mr. Bush, it's partly because he had to order the bombing of Afghanistan, and may do the same in Iraq, and these are deeply controversial decisions on this increasingly pacifist Continent. It's much easier to love our presidents when they're not exercising our power. But there is also something deeper.
Bill Clinton is viewed by the world as the epitome of American optimism — naïve optimism maybe, but optimism. And the Bush team — the President, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice (Colin Powell is an exception) — strike the world as cynical pessimists who believe only in power politics, much like 19th-century European statesmen. For the world, Bill Clinton is another J.F.K. and George Bush is another Thomas Hobbes, a man who, after witnessing Europe's religious wars, became deeply pessimistic about human nature and concluded that only one law prevailed in the world: Homo Homini Lupus — every man is a wolf to every other man.
If I've learned anything from living abroad, it's that while other nations often make fun of or scoff at America's naïve optimism, deep down they envy that optimism and rue the day we would give it up and adopt the tragic European view of history. Because our optimism about human nature and its commitment to the rule of law, not just power, is the engine of the modern West. It is also a huge source of U.S. strength and appeal — the soft power that comes from technologies, universities, Disney Worlds, movies and a Declaration of Independence built on the assumption that the future can bury the past.
This doesn't mean that a true American president would realize that Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il are basically good. They are evil. But other American presidents, like J.F.K., F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan, faced enemies more evil than Saddam or Osama without losing touch with American optimism and communicating that to the world. The Bush team has lost it — and it's a loss for them and for America.
"Never forget," a top German official said to me, "that it was the combination of American hard power and soft power that defeated the Soviet Union. [Europe's] so-called realism is really a deep pessimism that came out of all our religious wars. If you become like us, America will lose its very power and attraction for others — the reason that even people who hate you are attracted to you."
When the Bush folks sneer at things like the World Court or Kyoto, and virtually every other treaty — without offering any alternatives but their own righteous power — "they project an arrogance and obsession with power alone," said the political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. "This undermines the American idealism that made Europe aspire to emancipate itself from the history that brought us World Wars I and II, it delegitimizes American power as an instrument of justice and international order and it makes it impossible for the rest of the world to stand up and say: `I am a New Yorker.' "
Al Qaeda's whole strategy is to encourage this, and turn America into a nation of pessimists, by attacking the symbols and sources of American optimism — from the World Trade Center to a Bali disco, to the U.S. diplomat in Jordan who was just shot by terrorists. Who was that diplomat? The C.I.A. station chief? No. He was the head of the U.S. aid mission in Jordan — the American helping Jordan make its future better than its past.
The terrorists want us to shutter our windows, reject visa requests from Muslim youth and turn off our beacon of idealism so we will be less attractive as an alternative to their medieval fanaticism. Because the bin Ladenites know something Mr. Bush doesn't: that it is American optimism and soft power — not American hard power — that really threatens them.
No doubt after 9/11 we can't be naïve optimists anymore. But optimists we must remain. We have to find a way of defending ourselves from others' weapons of mass destruction without losing our own weapon of mass attraction. Our ability to rally the world depends on it.