Friday, January 31, 2003

Irish anti-Americanism

{First published in the Irish Voice in January 2003.}

"Bush is mad," someone told me last week. And, when an Irish person uses the word "mad" about President Bush, they don't mean he's angry, they mean he is "out of his mind". That opinion seems to be a fair reflection of the attitude of the population as a whole. As Mike Farragher discovered (last week's Voice) nearly everyone in Ireland is opposed to war with Iraq.

Obviously a large section of the American population is also uneasy about the possibility of war. Americans are weighing up a threat that's difficult to assess combined with the memories of September 11. They are balancing these with the risk to the lives of those who serve in the armed forces and all the other uncertainties that war can bring. And, yes, Americans are also loath to wage war if it means wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. This is a difficult decision and one that all Americans hope the President gets right.

Most of this does not seem to feature in any of the calculations here. For the most part Irish people simply do not believe that Saddam Hussein could possibly pose a threat to the US and that any American led war would be "immoral". The reason this is important is that for any American living here – or even just visiting – it is very easy to become dismayed when confronted by such attitudes.

Obviously, there are no views being expressed in Ireland that are not also being expressed in the US, but the universality of the anti-war and, often anti-American sentiment would get any American's back up. Many of the views that are popular and mainstream here are only espoused by people on the fringes of American opinion.

Anti-Americanism is in the air here, but most Irish people reject the notion that they're anti-American. Yet, they feel comfortable expressing views that can only be described as such.

Anti-Americanism can be difficult to define and it is often difficult to separate it from legitimate difference of opinion. However, I've developed some rules of thumb that help me sift the anti-Americanism from the various arguments regarding a possible war with Iraq.

There are only a few basic arguments that Irish people make regarding the US and Iraq and, with some gentle probing, the extent to which the speaker is anti-American or not can generally be deduced.

It's all about oil.

This is very common here. When people make this claim, I generally give them an opportunity to explain what they mean. If they tell me that the west's insatiable demand for oil is at the root of the problems with the Middle East, including Iraq, I see that as a valid viewpoint.

If, however, they say, "America only wants Iraq's oil", that is baldly anti-American. There are many factors that have led us to the brink of war, but a grubby resource grab is not one of them. It would obviously be far cheaper to strike a deal with Saddam for Iraq's oil than to fight a war. This statement reflects a stereotype of Americans as distinctly selfish and war mongering.

I'm not anti-American, but I'm anti-Bush.

As far as I'm concerned, this view is anti-American. President Bush is the President of the United States, and his administration governs on behalf of all Americans. Nobody in Ireland is concerned with the President's domestic policies (tax, healthcare, etc.). Although there are some minor differences of opinion regarding tactics, when it comes to Iraq he has the support of all the major leaders in both political parties and the American people. That is not acknowledged in Ireland.

Many people here speak of President Bush as if he is no more legitimate a leader than Saddam Hussein. For some reason, many Irish people believe you can separate the President and his government from the people who put him there and support him now.

When I read Cormac MacConnell's recent articles, I believed him when he said he is almost "blindly pro-American". Some of his arguments are more a questioning of US tactics than anti-American. Yet, I also thought to myself how contradictory, defeatist and almost hysterical he sounds.

He worries that war with Iraq will lead to terrorist attacks on Shannon Airport. Doesn't his fear indicate that he agrees with President Bush when he says that Saddam is connected to international terror? Isn't he also agreeing that Saddam possesses the wherewithal to inflict serious damage through terrorism? And, importantly, doesn't he realize that the many, many soft targets inside the US would be more appealing to Saddam than Shannon Airport?

If fear of attack is the reason for not going to war with Iraq, then we are already beaten and have been deterred by Saddam and the threat he poses. What reason is there to believe that this threat will not increase if we were to leave Saddam alone for the next five, or more, years?

Ireland is a neutral country.

Although I do wonder about this business of neutrality (neutral between the US and Iraq?), I don't believe it to be an anti-American position. As far as I'm concerned, neutrality is an inability to choose your friends or at least those with whom you share a basic worldview. It can be simply cowardly.

I often hear people state that they don't want to join any U.S. led defense pacts or participate in what they call "America's wars". Such views are anti-American because they are founded on the belief that the United States is unreasonably belligerent, willing to wage war with only the flimsiest of excuses.

War solves nothing or civilians will do most of the suffering.

Neither of these statements is anti-American. Many Irish people feel a sincere empathy with the victims of warfare and there will certainly be a strong reaction here to the images of killed or injured civilians.

However, when someone says, as Labour Party T.D. Michael D. Higgins was quoted in last week's Irish Voice, that the US is about to "wage war on a civilian population" that is anti-American. I know that the United States armed forces will do all they can to minimize civilian suffering. In fact, reducing civilian casualties is one of the primary design features of modern weapons development.

Ultimate responsibility for Iraqi civilians lies with Saddam and the choices he makes in the next few weeks. I too hope that civilian casualties can be kept to an absolute minimum. But, when I think of Iraqi civilians, I think of a nation of slaves ruled by a ruthless tyrant and his band of cronies. Faced with similar circumstances, I would prefer to take my chances in a war and the uncertain future beyond rather than remain living as a slave without hope. I believe most Irish people would too.

As an American, I accept that Irish people have the right to decide what nations they side with as they see fit. However, for many Irish-Americans, the fact that many in Ireland would choose not to support the US is stunning, if only because most Irish-Americans have always supported Ireland and wished Irish people well.

Official American attitudes towards Ireland should be based on the extent of mutual commitment. The Irish Government has recognized this aspect to international relations.

Acting out of naked self-interest, the government is permitting U.S. forces to land at Shannon on their way to the Middle East despite almost (seemingly) universal opposition to this policy. Therefore, state-to-state relations between the US and Ireland are apparently not going to be affected by any war with Iraq.

However, the relationship between Irish-America and the people of Ireland may be affected. Irish-Americans may want to consider Irish attitudes before they make that extra effort to "buy Irish" or plan that next trip to Ireland.