Two weeks in Europe can't help start you thinking about the present and future of the United States. The French pay more than twice as much for gas as we do, and there are no SUVs on the road. Meanwhile, for much less than the price of an air ticket, you can take a TGV train which, when you are paralleling a highway, passes the cars as if they are standing still. Electronic billboards on the train platforms tell you exactly where your own train car (which is marked on your ticket) will stop. The Swiss, I learned from a permanent European resident, did some very creative linear programming to allow their citizens easily to figure out how quickly they could reach almost any destination by train, and partly as a result, they have the lowest rate of auto ownership in the first world. These are only a few of many indicators of the fundamental difference between the two sides of the Atlantic: the everyday emphasis on the needs of the whole society, rather than of individuals, that pervades European life. The Europeans have preserved the tradition of a strong state while renouncing militarism and formal imperialism. The United States has done the reverse.
That wasn't the only eye-opener. I did not remain a full-time news junkie during these two weeks but just reading the Paris Herald Tribune (a remarkable newspaper) and the international Guardian (which showed up every morning in my hotel lobby), and looking at the French headlines, was enough to make clear that the Europeans are living in different mental universes. Stories in the US press strained to put a positive spin on President Bush's diplomacy at the G-8 summit; European headlines made no such pretense. They headlined, for example, statements by experts that Bush was obviously trying to sabotage, rather than promote, action against global warming. Meanwhile it was the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, and both the BBC and the press ran numerous articles on what is actually happening in the West Bank. Indeed, they ran big stories on a new map released by a UN agency that actually shows the extent of Israeli control in the West Bank. Maps in the US papers have accustomed us to thinking that the new fence represents the limit of Israeli ambitions, but that is not the case. The entire eastern border of the West Bank is under Israeli military control, and the new Israeli road net, from which Palestinians are barred, runs all over the country. You can see the map here.
Which leads me to the real story of the last six years: the successful attempt by Islamic radicals to launch a civil war all over the Middle East that will drive out western influence. Thanks to George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden will go down in history next to Lenin as one of the most successful revolutionaries of all time. (Bush will perhaps be linked to General Ludendorff, who allowed Lenin to return to Russia in 1917--but he has played a far more active role in the process.) For about 30 years since the early 1970s, one American administration after another had maintained US influence in the Middle East by cooperating with various authoritarian (and at times, even totalitarian) Arab regimes, while also doing nothing to stop Israeli expansion in to the West Bank and trying to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That policy became more and more unpopular among neoconservatives, partly because the Arabs would not make peace on Israeli terms. When the Cold War ended they concluded (even as the American military was being reduced in size by more than half) that our time to remake the region had come. 9/11 was the excuse. Meanwhile, George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice--prodded by Israeli hawk Natan Sharansky--decided a mixture of conquest and democracy could create pro-American and even pro-Israeli Arab regimes.
Instead, we have created chaos in which radicalism thrives. Many crises are getting worse in the region, and at least two are almost completely our fault. On the northern border of Iraq, Turkish troops are massing for a punitive expedition into Kurdish areas where, they claim, Kurdish terrorists operating within Turkey have a safe haven. The State Department--which remains as eager as ever to lecture every government in the world on proper behavior--has announced that this is not the right way to solve the problem. But how can we possibly make a credible case against a preventive attack? The Kurds do threaten Turkey; we conquered Iraq based on claims of threats against the United States that did not exist. Nor, evidently, did the Iraqi Kurds frighten the Turks so much even during the 1990s when they enjoyed effective autonomy, since they still had to worry about Saddam. This is one of the consequences of the invasion that we will be living with for many years, long after Bush and company have left office.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah are engaged in a true civil war--one which, although the US press doesn't like to mention this, has discredited our government more thoroughly than almost anything could. Two years ago Hamas won the election that we had insisted upon holding. The United States government promptly confirmed what Palestinian Hanan Ashwari has been saying--that to the US (and to Israel) the only acceptable Palestinian is a Zionist--one who accepts Israel's right to exist and renounces any Palestinian rights within Israel. It promptly refused to cooperate with the new elected government, or with the compromise coalition government that Hamas and Fatah eventually put together a few months ago, and both withheld most aid from that government and convinced the European Union to do the same. Denied the power it had won through legitimate means, Hamas--which might well have been willing to agree to some sort of truce with the Israeli government similar to the situation that evolved during the 1970s between East and West Germany--turned to violence, and has now eliminated the Fatah presence in Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas, our chosen instrument in the Palestinian territories, is now going to try to hang on in the West Bank.
The message of this story is clear: as far as the United States government is concerned, the job of Palestinians is to behave exactly as we wish. Yet even if they do so, it is not clear (as the UN-issued map shows) that they will achieve anything like a viable Palestinian state. Things are getting more and more shaky in Lebanon as well, where this Administration forced out the Syrians, who had effectively kept order for a long time. We have destroyed the old order in Iraq, in the Palestinian territories, and in Lebanon, without the slightest evidence that something better (from our point of view) would replace it. And now we must cope for the foreseeable future with something much worse, partly because our behavior has validated every accusation that radical Arabs make against us.
We now know, too, that the Iranian regime attempted to settle its differences with us on quite a generous basis in 2003, but the Bush Administration (which has not as yet been questioned about this as it deserves to be) undoubtedly simply took that as a sign of weakness that encouraged it to turn up the heat. ("I don't do carrots," John Bolton has recently been quoted as saying.) Iran's stance has become more radical and its influence has increased, taking advantage of the opportunities we created in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. Today's New York Times says that a battle is in progress between Condi Rice and the State Department and Dick Cheney and his office over whether to bomb Iran. I am not confident about the outcome.