Friday, 26 October 2007

Why the USA Scares Me

Living in the UK people for some reason always feel we are in danger of being dominated by others. In the Cold War many believed the USSR had a desire to overrun the UK and that they would fight a guerilla war to stop this. Given the economic difficulties of the UK and the USSR throughout that era, I doubt it would have made much economic sense, but it was what people feared. Since 1973 when the UK joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) and is now the European Union, many people constantly complain that our country is increasingly 'controlled from Brussels' with most of the focus on keeping EU rules for tinkering with our quirky systems of measurement and keeping the pound as the currency. The argument does not go beyond that and never addresses the broader economic and political questions, beyond complaint about Polish immigrants though they are generally lumped together with asylum seekers. There is a sense always that there is a British identity focused on the eccentricities of the UK in the 21st century, the loss of which, will mean the end of freedom in the UK. This takes no recognition of the massive changes that have gone on in British society since the late 1970s (probably more extreme than anywhere in western Europe) or the fact that freedom is more at risk from the government's erosion of civil liberties throughout the 2000s.

So where does the USA appear in this equation? Many people see it as a defender of democracy and certainly of the capitalist form of economics, though I would argue the EU certainly has an equal role in the latter. Due to the long historical connection between the USA and UK we probably get more US culture and hence attitudes flowing into our country than any of our neighbours and at various times France and (West) Germany have sought to shake off such influence. In the UK no politician can be seen to be hostile to the USA and so damage the 'special relationship' even when we have no need for US military bases on our soil (if we ever had a genuine need for them in the first place). The UK presents itself as retaining a key role in policing the World, but actually when you look at it, it cannot do this independently of the USA. This has been the case probably since 1941 though it was not put to the test until 1956 when the Americans opposed British intervention in Egypt.

Now for much of the 20th century the USA has managed to go off and have ill-advised wars without involving the British. There were British troops involved in the Korean War 1950-3 but fortunately that was comparatively short. The influence of Prime Minister Clement Attlee dissuaded the Americans from using atomic weapons which many millions of people in the world should be grateful for. The UK (bar a few individuals working with the Australians or later directly for the Americans) managed to stay out of the Vietnam War. What it was unable to do was to avoid the overall Cold War paranoia. This brings me to the first period when the USA scared me. It was during the terms of office of President Ronald Reagan. Like the current President Bush, Reagan was a man so lacking in talent that he should have been barred from holding high office. People portray him as the man who ended the Cold War and I have even seen a website arguing that if he had not been elected president in 1981 we would still be in the Cold War, that is utter rubbish; if he had died following the assassination attempt in March 1981 actually the Cold War may have ended a lot sooner. Especially in his first term of office (1981-1984) he brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had been at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He diverged from the steps to detente that had occurred in the 1970s (not helped by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979) but started adopting the jargon of the 'empire of evil' rather than seeing the Soviets as humans too and with no appreciation that by the mid-1970s their economy was in melt-down.

What was so alarming about Reagan and this has been an aspect which contributes to making the USA so frightening how, is his high degree of self-righteousness, and his belief that in the case of nuclear war the 'elect' (including himself) would be lifted clear of Earth by God and then brought back down to a new Eden that would rather be like the world following the end of the Deluge at the time of Noah. You cannot have the most powerful man in the world so detached from reality and with so little concern for billions of people living on this planet and not be afraid. Consequently through the 1980s I would awake to a loud bang fearing Reagan had triggered a nuclear war to bring about the new Eden. I was just grateful that living near a NATO computer base that we would be hit by one of the early missiles (in the UK we only had a 4-minute delay between war starting and missiles hitting the country, being only the size of Rhode Island there was nowhere to run to) rather than face a lingering death in the irradiated wreckage of what had once been the UK. Reagan also brought fear to Latin America by backing dictatorships in El Salvador and Honduras that were involved with the murder and horrific torture of their citizens and by sponsoring and arming rebels in Nicaragua too.

Right, you may say, well Reagan has long been out of office and is now dead, surely you cannot be worried about the Americans. Well, we have a US President who seems even more incompetent than Reagan. Since the 1980s fundamentalism has been growing across the world (in part because people feel they have so little to direct their own fates) and in the USA as in Iran, it has taken control of the political system. George W. Bush's attitudes are shaped by it. This means that the self-righteousness is back in full force, the sense that the Americans are so special that the policies they carry out are holy and cannot be wrong. Of course these policies are not applied, say to eliminate dictatorship across the world, but bar in Afghanistan (which I increasingly believe was invaded simply to have a war) has more to do with securing raw materials, notably oil (there may be raw materials in Afghanistan, something like uranium that the general public are currently not aware of) and to provide big contracts for US companies which have made billions out of rebuilding Iraq. At the moment it looks like Bush is gearing up for a war with Iran without even having tidied up in Iraq; the same language is being used as in 2002-3.

Thus, it is unsurprising that the world feels dangerous with a country that seeks to start a war every 3-4 years. The last person to get away with that was Benito Mussolini in the 1920s-40s in Greece (twice) and Ethiopia and ultimately he was executed. What is infuriating is not only is US policy so geared to these policies but somehow we (especially in the UK) are constantly being told we should support it and see that it is right. What enabled that forced sympathy was the attacks on the USA on 11th September 2001. Now I am not going to go into any conspiracy theories on this, though it is clear that the Bush family and Osama bin Laden's extended family were in friendly contact. What infuriates people in the UK is that after 2001 the Americans keep suggesting that they have suffered more than anyone else and so this gives them a special right to behave how they wish in the world. Now, even for Israel, home to the Jews who lost over 6 million people in the space of five years, this argument is wearing thin. For the USA such an argument has no strength (or it should have none). Growing up in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s we were regularly exposed to terrorist atrocities by the IRA. I witnessed one in 1999 in East London and had a friend who was standing very close to two bombings in London and Manchester. Other parts of Europe, notably Spain, witnessed similarly regular attacks and other countries such as France, West Germany and Italy were not spared.

These attacks led to deaths and maimings and also altered how our society behaved. I remember being separated from my parents when we visited the Tower of London so that we could each be searched for explosive devices and inside is a plaque where people were killed by a bomb in the 1970s. Attacks even reached the Houses of Parliament where the war hero Airey Neave was blown up and the royal family as Earl Mountbatten was blown up on his yacht. British policy in Northern Ireland was harsh, but at no stage did the British assert the right as a result to go round attacking who they chose, and particularly not simply for economic gain. We could easily have said that the IRA was being funded from Libya so we needed to invade Libya and take over its oil wells. The Vietnamese could easily claim reparations from the USA for the constant bombing of the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s (there are estimated to still be more landmines in the country than there are people) and the use of chemical weapons which are still causing severe birth defects thirty years on. By being so bullish about the attack on them rather than presenting it in the context of suffering that terrorism has long caused in the world, the Americans have shown how self-centred they are and how they continue to think they are better than anyone else. It ends up with such a patronising position that is communicated to the UK that somehow we know nothing about global politics, that we know nothing about true suffering from terrorism and so we should give up any rational objection to how these things are being handled to those people who know about these things, i.e. the fundamentalist right-wing in US politics.

I accept that faith is about believing whole-heartedly that you are right in what you believe. However, I am always afraid of those who will accept no questioning of their actions and have no ability to see anyone else's perspective. I wish I could find online an image of the 1960s cartoon which shows an an American man dressed in a jumpsuit made of the US flag saying it is a wonderful outfit suitable for church, school, leisure, work and then next to him a smaller, Vietnamese man draped in the oversized outfit saying 'It doesn't fit'. That cartoon is not only as applicable today as it was 40 years ago, it is applicable to the UK as much as it is to Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Somalia, the Philippines, Cuba, etc. You may argue, well, surely my concern about fundamentalist attitudes should extend to the 'other side', and it does, I do fear an Islamist suicide bomber, London has experienced these as well as other countries. However, it is an issue of scale. Even if al-Qaeda existed, which it does not in the form people seem to assume, then it lacks a fraction of the military might that the USA has. The US military could still wipe out the whole world either via nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry if it chose or some combination of these; it might even be able to do it with the conventional weapons it has. People would live on, but like the Vietnamese during the late 1960s it would be in tunnels and bunkers. That is the enduring strength of the US and why with their current obsessions, misapprehensions and self-righteousness I find them as frightening today as I did in the early 1980s.

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