Do Americans realize a good part of the civilized world is beginning to think their government has gone mad? Do they care? Should they? Worries about Washington's essential sanity are being voiced in cabinet and editorial meetings from Dublin to Tokyo.
We use the sobriquet "isolationist" for those reluctant to involve their country in foreign wars, and the media usually conflates the term with ignorance and bigotry.
But what is the mot juste for those – influential journalist, indispensable sub-cabinet officer, foundation official – who have little knowledge of the history or culture of other nations, but uses his influence to spur the United States to wage war against as many of them as possible, with or without allies?
Thirty years ago, Randy Newman penned the song "Political Science" putting a satirical gloss on the American unilaterialist. "Boom goes London, and Boom Paree/ More room for you and more room for me/ They all hate us anyhow/ So let's drop the Big One now" (Lyrics recalled from memory; accuracy not guaranteed.)
Newman, one supposed, was sending up (but not without some affection) a familiar type: guy with a pick-up truck decorated in "Love it or Leave It" decals (or perhaps the rebel battle flag), gun rack in back, high school diploma maybe. Called to serve in Vietnam, he did his duty.
But today's unilateralists are a different breed. Educated at top Ivy League schools, they write speeches for the President, or have secured millions from media moguls to publish magazines read by key Congressional staffers. None of them, of course, went anywhere near Vietnam themselves, unless it was years after the fact, to write a book about how noble a cause it was.
Fiercely effective at Beltway faction fighting, they have apparently persuaded George W. Bush to adopt their concepts. America must wage war against an "axis of hate" (a phrase subsequently altered to read "axis of evil.") It must strike out at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. (The list is a pared down version from the initial post 9/11 neoconservative target roster; that included Lebanon, Syria, and "parts of Egypt" as well.)
Countries which know the United States well, with traditions of democracy and freedom as vital as America's (indeed countries whose pamphleteers and philosophers helped shape the world view of our Founding Fathers) are pausing for a deep and fearful breath.
Last week the Financial Times, a middle of the road, establishment oriented, pro-business paper, takes a moment to editorialize about the new circumstance. On the eve of Ariel Sharon's visit the White House (the fourth meeting between Bush and Sharon, as European papers seldom fail to point out high in their stories) the FT ran a column discussing the "unease" springing up between Europe and the United States. Germany has led the protests, Brian Groom notes, but the discomfort is more widespread. Tony Blair has put enormous stake in his relationship with Washington. British diplomats scurried over the world after 9/11 making a eloquent public case for the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But now, these same officials stress there is not "an iota" of evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Islamic terrorism. About Iraq, they favor weapons inspections and sanctions, not war. The author concludes that Blair should acknowledge he has no real influence on Bush. After the State of the Union address, British officials "are playing down what the country can achieve as a transatlantic bridge."
Nor does Germany have any influence. Nor France, where prime minister Jospin recently went public over what the French view as dangerously simplistic policies. Nor any country in Europe.
To whom does Bush listen? Apparently Ariel Sharon has his ear. The Washington Post reported before his arrival that he would stress that Iran posed the main strategic threat to Israel, more menacing even than Iraq. Bush's speechwriters seem to have gotten the word before the Israeli prime minister's visit.
Bush's adoption of the Sharonist world view has been surprisingly complete. The Financial Times noticed it, again using cautious and understated language: "Ariel Sharon. . . has seized upon the post September 11 mood in Washington. . . to convince the Bush administration of the merits of his policies. The US now sees Yassir Arafat...as the key obstacle to peace. The tendency is to view Palestinian attacks as terrorism and be more tolerant of Israel's military tactics, including the assassination of militants. The shift in US thinking was underlined in...Bush's speech last week, which identified the Jewish state's enemies as a large part of the threat to America."
The editorial concludes with plea for the Bush administration to take a "deeper look" at the situation. The chances of Bush doing that are not great.
"Unilaterialist" is the term Europeans now use to depict an America that goes its own way without consulting its allies. Right now, that means preparing a war against much of the Muslim world, even though the Muslim world has never done very much harm to America. (The obvious and important exception is Al Qaeda, which it clearly must be an American priority to destroy.)
It's not clear the term, so academic and bloodless, has the texture to bear the moral opprobrium that will one day be attached to it, when our children read about the men who – ignoring the counsel of every American ally of long standing – launched this country into a series of wars against Muslim countries. Future generations may read of how the unilateralist's largest target, Iran, was in the midst of an fascinating political battle between fundamentalist clerics (on the retreat) and democratizing forces (making astonishing progress). But the war threats would bring the democratization process to a screeching halt. In a war waged without allies and with little sympathy around the world, the United States will lack the intelligence and police cooperation essential to a campaign against terrorism.
Because in any war, the United States will kill far more of "the enemy" than it absorbs casualties itself, it will leave in its wake thousands of fatherless children and younger siblings, some of whom will naturally dream of vengeance. Bush's war policy promises to turn much of the Muslim world into defeated and occupied territory, our very own Gaza Strip writ large, seething with resentment and aching to even the score.
Can anyone doubt why the Europeans see this course as a more than a little bit mad, and are now talking to America in the cautious and soothing tones one uses in the presence of deranged man carrying a loaded weapon?