U.S. Letter to Europeans



The central fallacy of the pro-war celebrants is the equation between “American values” as understood at home and the exercise of United States economic and especially military power abroad.


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Following the 11 September 2001 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush has declared an open-ended “war on terrorism”. This war has no apparent limits, in place, time or the extent of destruction that may be inflicted. There is no telling which country may be suspected of hiding “terrorists” or declared to be part of an “axis of evil”. The eradication of “evil” could last much longer than the world can withstand the destructive force to be employed. The Pentagon is already launching bombs described as producing the effect of earthquakes and is officially considering the use of nuclear weapons, among other horrors in its constantly improving arsenal.


The material destruction envisaged is immeasurable. So is the human damage, not only in terms of lives, but also in terms of the moral desperation and hatred that are certain to be felt by millions of people who can only watch helplessly as their world is devastated by a country, the United States, which assumes that its moral authority is as absolute and unchallengeable as its military power.


We, as United States citizens, have a special responsibility to oppose this mad rush to war. You, as Europeans, also have a special responsibility. Most of your countries are military allies of the United States within NATO. The United States claims to act in self-defense, but also to defend “the interests of its allies and friends”. Your countries will inevitably be implicated in U.S. military adventures. Your future is also in jeopardy.


Many informed people both within and outside your governments are aware of the dangerous folly of the war path followed by the Bush administration. But few dare speak out honestly. They are intimidated by the various forms of retaliation that can be taken against “friends” and “allies” who fail to provide unquestioning support. They are afraid of being labeled “anti-American” — the same label absurdly applied to Americans themselves who speak out against war policies and whose protests are easily drowned out in the chorus of chauvinism dominating the U.S. media. A sane and frank European criticism of the Bush administration’s war policy can help anti-war Americans make their voices heard.


Celebrating power may be the world’s oldest profession among poets and men of letters. As supreme world power, the United States naturally attracts its celebrants who urge the nation’s political leaders to go ever farther in using their military might to impose virtue on a recalcitrant world. The theme is age-old and forever the same: the goodness of the powerful should be extended to the powerless by the use of force.


The central fallacy of the pro-war celebrants is the equation between “American values” as understood at home and the exercise of United States economic and especially military power abroad.


Self-celebration is a notorious feature of United States culture, perhaps as a useful means of assimilation in an immigrant society. Unfortunately, September 11 has driven this tendency to new extremes. Its effect is to reinforce a widespread illusion among U.S. citizens that the whole world is fixated, in admiration or in envy, on the United States as it sees itself: prosperous, democratic, generous, welcoming, open to all races and religions, the epitome of universal human values and the last best hope of mankind.


In this ideological context, the question raised after September 11, “Why do they hate us?” has only one answer: “Because we are so good!” Or, as is commonly claimed, they hate us because of “our values”.


Most U.S. citizens are unaware that the effect of U.S. power abroad has nothing to do with the “values” celebrated at home, and indeed often serves to deprive people in other countries of the opportunity to attempt to enjoy them should they care to do so.


In Latin America, Africa and Asia, U.S. power has more often than not been used to prop up the remnants of colonial regimes and unpopular dictators, to impose devastating commercial and financial conditions, to support repressive armed forces, to overthrow or cripple by sanctions relatively independent governments, and finally to send bombers and cruise missiles to rain down death and destruction.


The “Right of Self-Defense”


(1) Whose right?


Since September 11, the United States feels under attack. As a result its government claims a “right to self-defense” enabling it to wage war on its own terms, as it chooses, against any country it designates as an enemy, without proof of guilt or legal procedure.


Obviously, such a “right of self-defense” never existed for countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Libya, Sudan or Yugoslavia when they were bombed by the United States. Nor will it be recognized for countries bombed by the United States in the future. This is simply the right of the strongest, the law of the jungle. Exercising such a “right”, denied all others, cannot serve “universal values” but only undermines the very concept of a world order based on universal values with legal recourse open to all on a basis of equality.


A “right” enjoyed only by one entity — the most powerful — is not a right but a privilege exercised only to the detriment of the rights of others.


(2) How is the United States to “defend” itself?


Supposedly in self-defense, the United States launched a war against Afghanistan. This was not an action specially designed to respond to the unique events of September 11. On the contrary, it was exactly what the United States was already doing, and had already planned to do, as outlined in Pentagon documents: bomb other countries, send military forces onto foreign soil and topple their governments. The United States is openly planning an all-out war — not excluding use of nuclear weapons — against Iraq, a country it has been bombing for a decade, with the proclaimed aim of replacing its government with leaders selected by Washington.


(3) Precisely what is being “defended”?


What is being defended is related to what was attacked.


Traditionally, “defense” means defense of national territory. On September 11, an attack actually took place on and against U.S. territory. This was not a conventional attack by a major power designed to seize territory. Rather, it was an anonymous strike against particular targeted institutions. In the absence of any claim of responsibility, the symbolic nature of the targets may have been assumed to be self-explanatory. The World Trade Center clearly symbolized U.S. global economic power, while the Pentagon represented U.S. military power. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the September 11 attacks were symbolically directed against “American values” as celebrated in the United States.


Rather, the true target seems to have been U.S.economic and military power as it is projected abroad. According to reports, 15 of the 19 identified hijackers were Saudi Arabians hostile to the presence of U.S. military bases on Saudi soil. September 11 suggests that the nation projecting its power abroad is vulnerable at home, but the real issue is U.S. intervention abroad. Indeed the Bush wars are designed precisely to defend and strengthen U.S. power abroad. It is U.S. global power projection that is being defended, not domestic freedoms and way of life.


In reality, foreign wars are more likely to undermine the domestic values cherished by civilians at home than to defend or spread them. But governments that wage aggressive wars always drum up domestic support by convincing ordinary people that war is necessary to defend or to spread noble ideas. The principal difference between the imperial wars of the past and the global thrust of the United States today is the far greater means of destruction available. The disproportion between the material power of destruction and the constructive power of human wisdom has never been more dangerously unbalanced. Intellectuals today have the choice of joining the chorus of those who celebrate brute force by rhetorically attaching it to “spiritual values”, or taking up the more difficult and essential task of exposing the arrogant folly of power and working with the whole of humanity to create means of reasonable dialogue, fair economic relations and equal justice.


The right to self-defense must be a collective human right. Humanity as a whole has the right to defend its own survival against the “self-defense” of an unchecked superpower. For half a century, the United States has repeatedly demonstrated its indifference to the collateral death and destruction wrought by its self-proclaimed efforts to improve the world. Only by joining in solidarity with the victims of U.S. military power can we in the rich countries defend whatever universal values we claim to cherish.


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LIST OF SIGNATURES (as of 10 April 2002)


Daphne Abeel, Journalist, Cambridge, MA.

Julie L. Abraham, Professor of English, New York City.

Michael Albert, ZNet, Boston.

Janet Kestenberg Amighi. Anthropologist, Hahneman University, Philadelphia.

Electa Arenal, Hispanic & Luso-Brazilian Literatures, City University of New York.

Anthony Arnove, Editor/Publisher, South End Press, Boston.

Stanley Aronowitz, Center for Cultural Studies, City University of New York.

Dean Baker, economist, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, DC

Houston A. Baker, Jr., Duke University, Durham, NC.

David Barsamian, Director, Alternative Radio, Boulder, CO.

Rosalyn Baxandall, Chair, American Studies at SUNY-Old Westbury.

Medea Benjamin, Founding Director, Global Exchange, San Francisco.

Dick Bennett, Professor Emeritus,