HITHER AND 'YON'
Now that the U.S. has captured Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration should return its attention to the larger issue of combating international terrorism and repairing our relations with the rest of the world.
There is a good chance now that Saddams former troops will end their resistance in Iraq, but the suicide bombers there and in Saudi Arabia and Turkey have not been Saddams men, who seem to value their own lives too much for suicide. The terrorists have been, almost certainly, not traditional soldiers, but young men from other lands trained to hate the United States and willing to kill themselves to damage us. That training has been relatively easy, because the rest of the world today--not just Islamic countries, but almost every country--resents the power and arrogance of the United States. All the terror-teachers have had to do is turn that resentment into hatred and add a dash of religious fanaticism. Voila: a generation of suicide bombers.
But there is a relatively simple way, I think, to disarm some of the terrorists--at least, some of the potential terrorists. I dont mean disarm in the sense of taking away their guns or their grenade launchers or their car bombs. I mean disarm in the happier sense of the word: to dissipate some of their resentment and anger.
My suggestion is this: that President Bush declare 2004 the Year of Other Nations (YON, for short) and that he make a well-publicized attempt at least symbolically to equalize the exchange of culture between the United States and other nations. Recently, for example, the Iraqi National Orchestra played in Washington, D.C. The next time that happens, President Bush should make a big deal about attending. He should also make a big deal of serving French and German food at state dinners. He should invite the ambassadors of other nations to the White House to watch Canadian and Iranian movies with him. (He might even enjoy them; they make some good movies.) He should call the locker room to congratulate the team that wins the soccer World Cup. (Be assured: this will not be the U.S. team.) President Bush and his well-read wife should break bread with the best Palestinian poets and the finest Syrian writers. He should travel to Sweden and speak admiringly of their form of semi-socialist democracy, even if he points out that its not quite in tune with his own conservative capitalism. His supporters say that Bush speaks better than passable Spanish; he should go to Spain and deliver a speech in that language. It absolutely doesnt matter what the speech is about.
This is not a trivial suggestion, and I dont propose it off-handedly. There is no overestimating how far a little internationalism will go toward improving the worlds perception of the U.S., and some of that change-for-the-better will trickle down to the young men whom the terror-teachers will continue trying to recruit. Instead of hating us, there is a chance that, if we work at it, some of those young men may actually admire us a bit. If we make an attempt to recognize and respect their cultures, they will be more likely to respect ours. Not all of them, certainly--the hard-core terror-mongers will find new reasons to hate us and new young men to listen to them--but some of the potential terrorists will be left, well, a bit disarmed. Terror-chic will no longer seem so cool to the worldwide young. In the long run, this kind of disarmament will be as important for the safety of the U.S. as the guns-and-grenades kind.
Most Americans dont know it, because it receives little media attention, but right now perhaps the greatest cause of anger and resentment against the United States around the world--not just among our enemies but among our strongest allies like Canada and Australia and England--is the perception that we are cultural imperialists. Our current administration acts, for example, as if our form of democracy is the only kind that works, barely acknowledging the success of parliamentary republics like England and Australia. When we travel, we expect everyone to speak English. Indeed, we presume, arrogantly, that English--American English--will be the language of international aviation, international business, and the Internet. Other than Hispanic immigrants, not one American in a hundred can speak another language well enough to get along in another country.
And then, of course, there is the stuff of culture itself. We consciously and arrogantly export our movies, our television shows, and our fast food. Our movies dominate the markets in Europe and the Far East. Our television shows fill prime time in places as far away as Australia. This has nothing to do with U.S. shows or movies being better than those the rest of the world can produce. Its just that American production companies make so much money in the U.S. market that they can then sell their shows and movies to foreign broadcasters and theaters at discount prices that their own nations producers cant match. According to the Christian Science Monitor, it costs an Australian producer $200,000 to make a one-hour TV show; a broadcaster there can buy a one-hour U.S. show for just $33,000. Just as Wal-Mart is killing small-town toy and clothing stores in the U.S. with its cut-rate prices, the U.S. is killing the film and TV industries in many foreign nations. As any film-lover will tell you, France and Australia and Canada make some pretty decent movies, but their film industries are in danger of being overrun by a swarm of Terminators and Matrixes--the kind of high-budget movies they cant afford to make, because they dont have the market for them. If the French did make a $200 million blockbuster, no matter how good it was, it would never find a big enough market in the U.S. to earn its money back. Americans will not sit for subtitles, Crouching Tigers notwithstanding.
Believe me, for the rest of the world, this cultural imperialism is not a trivial issue. Two months ago, in October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to convene a convention on cultural diversity in 2005, largely for the purpose of devising policies that would protect the rest of the world from U.S. cultural hegemony. This made headlines in Canada and France. The United States had boycotted UNESCO since the Reagan administration because it felt the organization was not sufficiently pro-American; it rejoined the organization only three months ago and already it is at odds with the rest of the world over cultural issues. Only reluctantly, after much pressure from the Canadians and French, among others, did the U.S. agree to the cultural diversity convention. The convention is likely to support policies allowing foreign countries to pass laws, for example, limiting how many foreign films and tv shows may be shown in, say, Paris or Toronto or Sydney. But the U.S. doesnt like that idea. After all, movies and television shows--not to mention Starbucks and McDonalds and Euro Disneys--are big sellers overseas and help balance our trade deficit.
But I think its worth the small hit to our national pocketbook to support the cultural protectionism that the vast majority of our allies feel they need. The return in good will would be immense.
In fact, I think the Bush administration, as part of the Year of Other Nations, should set aside a few million symbolic dollars to sponsor a traveling international film festival that would go from U.S. city to U.S. city showing great movies from other lands. Heck, let Mr. Bush record a short introduction to be shown before every performance. In it, he can speak of how much he admires foreign art and believes in international cultural exchange. It would be the kind of photo-op--a moving picture op, you might say--that his handlers so relish. So what if its all for show? In this case, symbolism counts.
The fact is, Mr. Bush right now is perhaps the most unpopular president, world-wide, in history, and because of that, the reputation of the United States is the worst it has ever been. The world resents our arrogance, and out of this resentment terrorists are bred. From the beginning of his presidency, it has been clear that George W. Bush sees the world through a red-white-and-blue lens: America is all good, he seems to believe, and the rest of the world should just do it our way. When he and colleagues like Donald Rumsfeld speak of other countries being either with us or against us, they dont seem to mean just in the struggle against terrorism; they seem to mean in everything. This administration will brook no foreign independence. Why else are France and Germany and Canada--Canada!--blocked from bidding on Iraqi reconstruction projects, even if allowing them to do so were to mean lower costs and a good-size savings to the American taxpayer? In the Bush administration, only Colin Powell seems to have the worlds respect--because he actually seems to listen to what the rest of the world has to say.
In my lifetime, the most popular American president overseas was John F. Kennedy. He went to Berlin and said, Ich bin ein Berliner
. Imagine if George W. Bush went to Paris and said, Je suis Francais
. An entire nation would hang on every word, however bad his pronunciation. Then imagine if he learned just three sentences in Arabic: We all have the same God. Let us work for peace. I like your architecture. A few phrases in a foreign tongue could save thousands of lives in the future.
I see only one drawback to this suggestion: It would almost certainly mean that Mr. Bush would become so popular that he would be easily reelected next year, and I worry about the reactionary judges he will nominate to the federal bench in his next term. But in the name of international well-being, Im willing to take that chance.
On the streets of Baghdad, U.S. soldiers are now trying to win the hearts of Iraqi children. Mr. President, you can learn from your soldiers. Theyre in the streets kicking around soccer balls with the kids. If you want to win back the worlds good will and turn potential terrorists into friends, dont insist that all those kids play baseball.