02 April 2007

A changed perspective?

Has living in Saint-Aignan changed my view of the world and of the United States? I guess it has, inevitably. The U.S. seems more and more like a foreign country — not when I'm there, because I feel at home, but when I view life and politics there from this distance.

I remember back in the 1970s when I first started coming to France. French people would offer what I thought were negative or stereotypical views and interpretations of U.S. society and politics, and suddenly I would find myself defending the way we Americans did things and how we viewed our country and the world. Or at least trying to explain (to myself?) why U.S. policies and politics and society were the way they were.

I was shocked at my change in attitudes. In the U.S., we had just lived through the some of the worst episodes of the Vietnam War (destroying villages "to save them") and the assassinations of inspirational figures including John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The generation gap separated the World War II generation from the Vietnam generation. "Love it or leave it," some Americans said about our country. I was pretty disheartened by a lot that was happening in the U.S., and I couldn't believe I was hearing myself actually defend U.S. policies, priorities, and cultural attitudes.

I was young and naïve, and I think I wasn't the only young Amercian abroad who surprised by these kinds of reactions to perceived criticism of our home country. What feels like and emotional kind of patriotism suddenly comes to the forefront when you feel that the part of your identity that has to do with your nationality is being attacked, misinterpreted, or misunderstood.

So with that preface, let me say this — am I the only one who watches the Sunday political talk shows on American TV these days and comes away shell-shocked?

We get CNN International on our satellite TV system here in France, and on Sunday afternoons one of the shows CNN runs is journalist Wolf Blitzer's Late Edition talk show. We also get CNBC, and it shows Tim Russert's Meet the Press program on Sunday evening. I usually end up watching both — it's an old habit from the days when I worked as a political writer (some would say "propagandist," since I was employed by the U.S. government) in Washington, D.C.

Well, yesterday afternoon Blitzer featured an interview with two U.S. Senators who were described as "leading members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee" — Republican Christopher Bond from Missouri and Democrat Dianne Feinstein from California. The discussion the had with Blitzer turned on the current British "hostage crisis" in Iran and Iran's supposed nuclear ambitions.

During the interview, Blitzer showed a video clip in which the former (and controversial) U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, was seen saying that "the only thing that will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is regime change in Tehran." As we all know, regime change can be brought about in many political and military ways — we will likely have a kind of regime change in Washington by popular elections in January 2009. But in the context of the current U.S. Administration's policies and the thinking of some American politicians, it means that the U.S. military needs to go in, depose offending government officials in other countries, and set up more "acceptable" governments.

When Blitzer asked Republican Senator Bond whether he agreed with John Bolton, Bond said: "Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there is any other option other than regime change..." He continued by saying the hoped that other countries "who have much to fear from a nuclear Iran, such as Germany and China and Russia," would be willing to join in an effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or "even to bring about a regime change in Iran."

That is the thinking among many American politicians nowadays, but it's not Senator Feinstein's. Asked for her reaction to Bond's statements, Feinstein said that she "very much regretted" that CNN and Bond were putting such ideas forward.

"You know, I don't know who the United States thinks we are that we are the keeper of all the world," Feinstein said, "and that if we can't get along with a government, we've got to change that government and then we do it by a pre-emptive war."

"Pre-emptive war" is part of the jargon that U.S. politicians and journalists have come up with the describe the policy under which the U.S. administration might feel it has the right to send troops where it wants in the world to overthrow governments and leaders of other countries that, in the opinion of the U.S. Administration, are not pursuing and emphasizing proper and desirable policies. It's hard to believe we've come to this, and how dangerous it can be.

"It seems that, these days, all America knows is the threat of force," Senator Feinstein continued. "And, in fact, that's just one thing and it's the last thing. And why we have moved it always up to the very first thing, I don't know, but it's a mistake. It's a mistake for our future. It's a mistake for America's presence in the world today."

Finally, saner voices are being heard, and people in the U.S. Congress are speaking up against the way things have been done by the U.S. government over the past four years. "Cooler heads" need to prevail in shaping U.S. dealings with Iran, Feinstein said, adding "let's just keep our cool" and pursure diplomatic solutions.

To be fair to Senator Bond, after a commercial break (American TV!), he changed his tune. "I am not [calling] and have not called for military action in Iran." But, he added, "I do not believe it should be taken off the table... I believe we must pursue diplomatic efforts." It was almost as if his aides and advisors had talked to him during the pause in the interview and warned him he had gone too far in his earlier comments. But the fact is, we heard what he really thought.

I for one never expected so many American politicians to become such a menace to world peace and to advocate such bloodthirsty policies. It reminds me how many times I've been shocked to hear U.S. political figures talk in raw terms about how they would like murder Osama Bin Laden with their own hands, for example, if they could get their hands on him.

And then there's the whole matter of torturing prisoners in U.S. prison facilities in Cuba and possibly around the world. What is going on in the U.S.? What happened to due process? Why do we even own a piece of Cuban territory? Could these really be members of my generation who are in charge? Have they lost their minds? Why have they lost their bearings?

When you live in a culture and hear all the chatter and noise around you all the time, you tend to tune out comments like Bolton's and Bond's. But if we Americans are not careful, such radical views and policies become part of the political culture and the conventional wisdom.

It's like the war in Iraq — now that it's been going on for four years, it just "is." It's the way the world is now. How can it be stopped? And why exactly did we start it? According to polls, the American people want the American involvement in Iraq to end, but nobody knows what to do. It's a stalemate for now. That's why it's so dangerous to let these invasions and wars get started in the first place.


  1. It all goes back to Project for a New American Century, of which a large percentage of the current Presidents advisors were/are members. They advocate that America needs to be the only world power and to achieve that it needs to be done by armed force. However, there needs to be another "Pearl Harbor type" experience for the American people to get behind that type of thinking. I do not believe, as some here do, that our government had anything to do with planning the 9/11 attack. However, I do think that the President's advisors took immediate advantage of the situation, and the surging patriotism feeling, to force the hand of Congress. Then, the members of congress could not do or say anything that was perceived as aiding and abetting the enemy. It is still like that to some extent. It is amazing how many people here have just shoved their heads in the sand and refuse to look at fact, instead of some pseudo-patriotic falsehoods.

    Oh well, I tend to get on a soapbox with this. Sorry for such a long comment.

  2. Bravo, Ken, pour ton analyse ! Une des choses qu'on ne peut pas reprocher à Chirac est d'avoir su dire "non" à une participation de nos troupes à la guerre "préventive" en Irak qui a complètement déstabilisé le Moyen-Orient... Letters such as the ones found on the web site below illustrate what you have said in your "article" :


    Bises. Marie

  3. Ken,
    You truly have a strong stomach if you are able to watch those t.v. shows. I'm so disgusted by it all that I have had to tune out or I'm consistently angry. (And an angry pregnant woman is not a pretty sight.) Especially when almost all of the Democrats supported the war and then spent the next few years being really quiet.

    I'm so glad to hear that people like Feinstein are speaking up. Thanks for writing about this. Now I'll crawl back into my shell.

  4. I am thinking that perhaps the world has gone mad...or at least the part that I come from. I too am confused by the current perspective. What will it take to change, to see peace instead of war, as the answer?

    Meilleurs voeux!!

  5. mpabner and Ken really said it well. I'm slightly encouraged by some politicians and others who have started to answer back to right-wing demagoguery.

    Like Amy H, I usually just skip Wolf Blitzer and the like. Sometimes I can't even make myself read the newspaper (in hand or on line).

  6. Hi Ken !

    Sisley Huddleston, in his Paris Salons Cafes, Studios. Being Social, Artistic and Literary Memories published in 1928, put it quite neatly:

    "... there are exiles - expatriates as they prefer to call themselves - in Paris who know more about the United States, about Ireland, about England, than anybody who lives in these countries. They can see these lands with detachment. Moreover, they see fresh images, they can spread new colours on their palette, they see even their compatriots around them in a clearer light, and they contrast them and their manners with the French and their manners. They are no longer insular …"

    A bon entendeur ... (grin)



  7. Thank you for your sensitive analysis, Ken. I wish Feinstein had voted against the war four years ago, but few did. I'm glad she said what she did on Sunday, though.

    When I stand on the street corner in Sunnyvale with the group Sunnyvale Voices for Peace, we get lots of honks of support but lots of middle fingers, too. Unfortunately, it's polarizing and cooler heads do not seem to prevail.


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