In 2001 I traveled across the war-blackened villages of
and saw first hand the
evidence of Serbian atrocities
carried out against the region’s indigenous Kosovar Albanian population
. All of these horrors had been
carried out in blatant disregard for established norms that the US and all
civilized countries officially abided by. The world understood that the Serbs
were beyond the pale of civilization and NATO forcefully ended their campaign
of ethnic cleansing with a UN mandate (resolution 1244)
But try telling the pariah Serbs that. When I returned to London where I was
teaching at the time I subsequently met a group of Serbs who were unwilling to
accept that their country’s forces had engaged in ethnic cleansing in Kosovo or
Bosnia. I remember asking them if they thought the UN and the entire world from Guatemala to Thailand
had just imagined their country’s war crimes.
I will always remember one of their replies to
my inquiry, “We don’t need the world and don’t believe in their conspiracies
against us. They hate us because we are Serbs.”
I recall thinking at the time, “Thank God I’m
an American, a citizen of the country that has worked to create global
consensus and alliances such as NATO and New York-based UN. My country would
never be so perversely dismissive of the rest of the world’s opinion,” I
thought at the time.
One thing I thought the US would have learned
from the horrible images of Americans falling out of the burning World Trade
Centers is that other people’s perceptions of us are not irrelevant. Our need
to win over others and burst the bubble of isolation from the rest of the world
through alliances was never clearer than on that day.
But in the build-up to the US invasion of
Iraq, the magic moment of 9/11 was lost, and with it the hearts and minds of
many of our allies and those neutrals we sought to win over. A unilateralist
“you are with us or against us” mood swept the country as we surveyed the world
with newfound distrust. Convinced of the uniqueness of our victimhood and
infallible righteousness of our struggle, dissenting opinion from historic
allies came to be defined as a betrayal.
When the UN (which many in the Middle East
have long accused of being a US tool), dared to suggest that it had uncovered
no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it was seen as being “against us.” When
the French (the same ones who sent troops to Afghanistan and helped us gain
independence) expressed similar skepticism of the rationale for invading sovereign
Iraq, millions of Americans came to consider France to be an archenemy. Turning
our back on the UN and NATO allies like Germany, France, Turkey and Belgium
that had voted in the UN against our unilateral invasion, we launched Operation
Enduring Freedom. The message to our NATO allies, the UN, and the world was
clear: we did not need them.
Fast forward to September 11, 2007. With over
3,700 dead soldiers in a war that has out-lasted our involvement in World War
II, the US-led Coalition (which includes such “powers” as Palau, Micronesia,
Tonga, and Eritrea, but is missing the support of such Cold War stalwarts as
Germany, France, and Turkey) is desperately in need of allies. We could use the
help of our NATO allies who were with us in Afghanistan (Germany, Turkey,
France etc) but not in Iraq.
We could also use the blue-helmeted UN
soldiers from the Arab world to train the Iraqi security forces and patrol
dangerous Iraqi neighborhoods where Americans (who don’t speak Arabic) are
defined as “infidels.” And God knows we could use the economic support of the
European Union countries, which Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously dismissed as
“Old Europe” to help rebuild Iraq. In other words, we could use the sort of
international support of the sort we marshaled for the first Gulf War but spurned in the 2003 rush to
invade Baathist Iraq.
It is time to put aside the “your against us”
rhetoric of the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom and reach out to such pro-American leaders as France’s new president Sarkozy,
to the UN (which was right about the lack of WMDs) and other countries that
were "against us" when confronted with our belligerent unilateralism in Iraq.
And John Hill is correct.
We must learn from our mistakes. When we reject the criticism of our allies and
the very institutions that we helped build to create global consensus, we run
the risk of becoming like those Serbs who claimed, “We don’t need the world and
don’t believe in their conspiracies against us. They hate us because we are
While the world will always be filled with
those who resent us for being on top, we cannot afford to make enemies out of
friends. Especially when we are engaged in a two-front war in Iraq and
Afghanistan against an enemy our president claims “hates us for our freedom.”
--Brian Glyn Williams, Assistant Professor of Islamic History, UMass