WASHINGTON — If you want to get a feeling for why America's allies are rapidly peeling off from supporting the war on terrorism, the following personal account may help.
It started when a voice from my German audience startled me with the flat statement: "You are in Afghanistan for the oil." When I responded in shock, "Oil?" he corrected himself, "Well, for the pipeline." (He was referring to a pipeline some corporations are considering running from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to a port on the Arabian Sea.)
I was in Germany debating this issue as one of the 60 intellectuals who signed a letter from America supporting the war. The United States justified the war on three grounds: protecting innocents from harm (as distinct from sheer self-defense), a clear and present danger (not just a questionable threat), and that the situation cannot be plausibly mitigated through negotiations.
But back at the debate, organized in Berlin by the Aspen Institute, Ekkehart Krippendorff from the Free University, a well-known, left-leaning professor, argued that it is wrong in principle for intellectuals to support a government. "They should be critical; you never know what a government will do with its power," he said.
During a dinner after the debate, Andrea Fischer, a member of the German parliament from the dovish Green Party, argued that any highfalutin moral blessing of a war was at best troublesome. "Just say it is in self-defense," she said.
At a meeting at the Center for Social Science in Berlin later the same day, a colleague quoted a counter-statement issued in the US by the left, mocking ours, calling us "celebrants of war," and arguing that the US had appropriated the right of self-defense.
I asked the audience, "fair enough, you are critical of what the US is doing. If it is ever justified to go to war, what are your criteria for a call to arms?" When I found no takers, I asked if fighting Hitler was just. This got me a lot of positive nodding, but also a voice from the back of the room: "Saddam is no Hitler; Sharon comes close."
In Afghanistan, the US had some very regrettable collateral damage, but also collateral gain. While the US did not set out merely to liberate women denied the right to work, to education, and to leaving their homes unescorted or help all to enjoy some form of culture other than prayer America did bring liberty to millions of Afghans. This, I said, brings up the question: If the US should not fight terror aimed at Americans, how about terror that wipes out other people?
Half a million people were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994. Should the US intervene with force if another genocide looms? A woman from the audience argued that the UN should act, but it could not last time, because the US failed to pay its dues.
I asked why the European Union did not act on its own, if it was so critical of the way Americans do things? And if the Europeans preferred the way Dutch peacekeepers acted in Srebrenica, Bosnia, where 7,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Serbs while the peacekeepers refused to fire a shot in their defense? I argued that the "collateral damage" of not acting was much higher than America's in Afghanistan, and that the US did its best to minimize it.
The response? I was told that the "official" number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan was 50,000 and that nobody knows what really happened since the US did not allow the press in.
At this point I lost it. I allowed that they could afford to be de facto pacifists, as long as Americans were the bullies, on call to save them. Who kept West Berlin free? Our airlift. Who stopped Hitler? The Dutch? The French? Who stopped the military expansion of communism in Europe?
Renowned historian Jürgen Kocka responded, "You are ... right. If it was not for the US, I would have grown up a Nazi. I am forever grateful."
I felt I had planted a seed, but many more need to be sown and nurtured if the American antiterrorism drive is to keep support overseas. It is time to reestablish the US Information Agency.
The US needs to consult with its allies more about the next moves in the war on terrorism, although America must make clear that if all the allies do is veto what the US considers must be done, without suggesting viable alternatives, America shall go it alone at the end of the day.
The US should also allow more press access during the next rounds of the war. But ultimately, I fear, Americans had better steel themselves to the fact that they shall have to carry much of the burden of defending the free world yet again, while critics crowd the coffee shops of Europe, trading paranoiac stories about US motives and second-guessing every move.
It's sniping we Americans would rather do without, but it is often the price of leadership.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor at George Washington University and author of 'The Monochrome Society.'