Reflections on U.S. foreign policy from a British conservative pacifist living in Columbus, Ohio

[1] Here in Columbus I often see flags for Ohio State, especially on game days. There are very few flags for other teams. Football unites Columbus. People who have never attended O.S.U. talk about the O.S.U. team as “us” and the opposing team as “them.” Refereeing decisions unfavorable to O.S.U. are often condemned. Supporters usually do not see the fouls committed by their own team. (Michigan supporters are few and far between.)

[2] Having grown up in Newcastle, where support for Newcastle United is fanatical, I find this to be a familiar phenomenon. On game days the black and white striped shirts of the city’s soccer team are everywhere.

[3] As in other American towns, lots of people here proudly display the American flag. The American flag unites the nation in the same partisan way as the O.S.U. flag unites Columbus on game days. Recent immigrants and Americans who can trace their ancestors back for generations take pride in their citizenship. They support the same team. Does the analogy with football supporters stop there? Americans are taught to swear allegiance to the flag. Are they taught to think critically about government policies? Are foreign policies open to question? Do they see the fouls committed by our side? Does nationalism stifle discussion and silence opposition?

[4] I am not sure of the answer. I have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of some senior Republicans to question publicly the Bush administration’s policy towards Iraq. I have also been impressed by the willingness of some Democrats to support Bush’s position (even though I disagree with their views).

[5] I left England before the jingoism of the Falklands War. Although I have grown used to seeing American flags, it took a long time. Union Jacks were seldom displayed while I lived in Britain, although they are more common now.

[6] Immediately after the bombing of the World Trade Center last year I met a colleague as I walked across campus. Naturally we talked about the incident. I observed that such attacks should hardly be surprising, in light of American foreign policy, and the only surprise to me was that something similar hadn’t happened before. Although he said that he shared my views to some extent, I knew by the look on his face that it was not the time (11 a.m. on September eleventh) for such a debate. I hid at home for a couple of days. Most people appeared to be more interested in revenge than anything else.

[7] I do not think terrorism is justified. I also think that we can and should try to understand what motivates terrorists. I would like to emphasize this point. Terrorism is the enemy of civilized society and we should try to know our enemy.

[8] Now that the first anniversary has passed, perhaps we can look more soberly at American foreign policy. What exactly is the threat to the United States that might possibly justify the killing of thousands more innocent civilians? Let us be clear-that is exactly what will happen. Britain and the United States are already bombing Iraq regularly. If we increase the bombing of Iraq, do we prevent terrorism or create terrorists for the future?

[9] Assessing the effects of foreign policy is made difficult by limited information and propaganda. It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Churchill commented that in wartime truth was so precious that is should be “attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The Bush administration seems to share this view. Although Donald Rumsfeld denied that the Office of Strategic Influence, which has since been closed, was specifically created to spread misinformation, he did say that it was appropriate to use “tactical deception.” What exactly is the difference between tactical deception and misinformation?

[10] We must recognize that rational, informed debate is difficult when the government wants to go to war. Informed debate is impossible in wartime and almost impossible after hostilities have ended. After the war, any pretense of truth inevitably gives way to the victor’s version of events.

[11] Informed debate is more difficult thanks to the American media, which seems to be dependent on press releases from the government. Reporters are reluctant to criticize their news sources in case they are denied access to future briefings. Investigative journalism is rare, aggressive interviews almost unknown. Government policy is reduced to a few clever phrases in an effort to get a sound bite.

[12] In Britain we have a tradition of “loyal opposition.” It is the duty of the members of parliament who are not in the governing party to question and criticize government policies. Often this critical evaluation appears to be based on party allegiances. One can get tired very quickly in Britain of political debate which appears to be based on blind support or opposition. It is quite refreshing living here in the States to find that politicians often ignore party lines when supporting or opposing policies. Unfortunately public debate is very limited, and the evaluation of the government which takes place inevitably in Britain is lacking here.

[13] Is the debate likely to be open when immigrants in the States are subject to racial profiling? When people are imprisoned without trial? I find it incredible that so many people in the United States and Britain are willing to accept the restriction of civil liberties. How can governments claim to be fighting for freedom while restricting the very rights that they claim to be defending? What better victory for the terrorists than to undermine the freedoms that we claim to be important? The weak media criticism of this aspect of the war on terrorism is very disturbing, and is part of a wider problem with the U.S. media. When Clinton bombed Sudan and Afghanistan on August 20, 1998 (in what Arabs dubbed “Operation Monica”), there was little condemnation. Numerous international groups have confirmed that the target in Sudan was a pharmaceutical plant and did not make weapons. Reports such as these are seldom broadcast by the American media.

[14] Critical commentary is usually confined to a few opinion pieces and editorials. Television and radio reports are superficial at best. The problem is exacerbated in the States by the lack of national newspapers. In Britain the opinions of national newspapers (such as the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Times, or Independent) do influence government policy. The majority of people in the U.S. have to make do with a local paper, the main purpose of which seems to be to sell advertising.

[15] Criticism and skepticism are very much part of public discourse in Britain. It seems that here in the States policy statements of public officials are much more likely to be accepted at face value. Should we accept without question the views of experts who claim to have special knowledge that they claim they cannot share? Reporting and discussion of foreign policy issues invariably amounts to a series of government representatives making unsubstantiated accusations, speculating wildly, and extrapolating worst case scenarios from the flimsiest evidence. When innocent people are killed, the usual response is a denial, followed by unbelievable explanations of how the deaths might have occurred. These are reported without evaluation. When it becomes undeniably clear that innocent people have been killed, the deaths are described as collateral damage.

[16] How many Americans would be willing to accept family members being killed by foreign bombs and have the deaths written off as collateral damage? Foreigners suffer from U.S. bombs regularly. In recent years, the U.S. has dropped bombs on Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq (particularly Baghdad), Libya and Panama. Are the deaths acceptable because those killed are foreigners? It appears sometimes that British and American foreign policy is based on a lethal combination of racism and nationalism.

[17] Whether the killer is a soldier or a terrorist is of little importance to the person killed or his/her family. If an official army deliberately bombs targets where there are known to be innocent civilians, how is this different from a terrorist attack? Why should these actions be seen as any different from terrorism simply because the killers were in uniform? Such deaths are inevitable when countries resort to military action. Bombs dropped from miles above a target are bound to go astray. The people in the bombers do not see their victims. They do not see the deaths and injuries. They are merely doing their duty for their country.

[18] We should evaluate and (where appropriate) criticize government policies. It is our right and duty. I believe that evaluating the U.S. government’s current policies reveals that military action is very difficult to justify. Many people would accept that a government has the authority to organize defense against an invading force, but U.S. attacks on other countries do not carry the weight of legitimate authority. Even if the United States can persuade the United Nations Security Council that military action is justified, this will add little legitimacy to military action. The U.S. uses U.N. resolutions selectively at best, enforcing those which serve its interests and ignoring those which do not (such as 242 and 338, which call for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied territories).

[19] Peaceful solutions may take time, but imagine what would happen if we spent as much pursuing peace as we do waging war. Even if the effort fails, is it not worth trying? Do we really win with wars? What was the great victory from Vietnam? What did the invasion of Grenada achieve? What has violence between Israelis and Palestinians achieved? Of course stopping Hitler was a victory. But wouldn’t it have been better if the First World War had ended with a peace that did not lay the foundations for Hitler’s rise to power? Let us at least try peaceful approaches.