The Washington Post Column

Allies, For The Most Part

London — On the morning after the terrorist assaults on New York and Washington, my friend Matt, a New Yorker who has lived here for a long time, woke up to discover a sympathy card slipped under his door. It was from his neighbors, whom he hardly knows. On the afternoon of the tragedy itself, I was stopped by a saleslady in a shop. Hearing an American accent, she asked me where my family lives: When I said Washington, she quietly asked if I had managed to talk to them yet. I hadn’t. No one in Europe could talk to anyone in Washington or New York — or even San Francisco or Tampa — on the 11th of September, which was part of what made that afternoon so strange for Americans abroad.

Cut off from the United States by overloaded phone lines, we were nevertheless surrounded by friends. Here, on a continent that has had more experience of terrorism, and has an older, wartime memory of death arriving unexpectedly from the sky, the first, uncalculated reactions were expressions of genuine solidarity. Ordinary people voiced it, and politicians did, too. The British Conservative Party suspended its leadership elections as a mark of respect. Prime Minister Tony Blair said that the United Kingdom would stand “shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in their hour of tragedy.” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder spoke of a “war against the entire civilized world,” while the NATO ambassadors, meeting in Brussels, unanimously agreed that the event triggered the NATO treaty: An attack on one member state is an attack on all.

That was the first reaction. A second, which began a day or two later, has been more muted, less public, totally unofficial, and somewhat disturbing as well. Already, more than a few criticisms have crept into the discussion of the week’s events. America, a few are now saying, brought this on itself through its support for Israel. Or through its economic sanctions on Iraq. Or simply by being too rich in an impoverished world.

While hastily assuring his interviewer that his organization did not support terrorism, a member of the British Green Party told the BBC that it was possible to understand the “logic” behind the attacks. On one of the BBC’s main talk shows, a hostile audience, partly composed of British Muslims, confronted a former U.S. ambassador to London, asking him whether the attacks “represent a failure of U.S. foreign policy, with millions and millions of people around the world despising the United States.” A friend reports that in the magazine office where she works, the general consensus is that it’s time for Britain to reexamine its “special relationship” with the United States.

Listen more carefully, and even some of the language being used by politicians is not quite so supportive as it seemed at first. Lionel Jospin, the French prime minister, called upon the United States to be “reasonable” in its response. Rudolf Scharping, the German defense minister, has also said that “we do not face a war.” These countries have big Muslim populations, complex relationships with the Arab world that they do not want destroyed. If their ambivalence toward the United States grows, how much time before the appeal to “caution” turns into a call to stop?

I don’t believe these sorts of sentiments necessarily detract from the genuine shock and sorrow that most Europeans feel. But the anti-Americanism that has gradually come to characterize Europe’s political and intellectual elite for the past decade has not disappeared overnight, either. It is a combination of traditional jealousy of American power and cultural influence, dislike of American domestic policies — the death penalty, for example — plus real criticism of American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Politics have made the combination more lethal than usual: Almost all of Europe, at the moment, is run by center-left politicians who were willing to keep their critiques of Bill Clinton muted, but have no qualms about openly opposing even identical policies when pursued by a Republican president.

And now, unfortunately, these sentiments do matter. The United States is going to launch an international war against international terrorism. It is a war that may last for months, or years, and may require both military and intelligence support from America’s friends around the world, especially in Europe. This is the time for America’s leaders to start building widespread, active support for whatever action we take, in as public a manner as possible. It is not enough simply to build coalitions with diplomacy, nor enough to call on NATO leaders for support, as Bush has done: The president should also go over the heads of the statesmen, and speak to the foreign public. It is no longer enough to speak of “my fellow Americans.” He should talk, instead, of “my fellow members of our global civilization.”

For strange though it may seem to Americans, George Bush is the leader of that global civilization as well as president of the United States. His every word is being repeated and analyzed in Europe’s capitals with just as much attention as in Washington and New York. As I write this, his face keeps popping up on the television screen behind me. If he appeals to the citizenry of the international community, his constituents — all of his constituents — will hear him.