‘Poised as I am, halfway between the two cultures, it was a little strange watching British reactions to events in America last week… It was a little strange even being in Britain last week. On Tuesday after hijacked planes had hit targets in Washington, where my family live, and New York, where most of my friends live, I was standing in Bond Street, dialling and redialling their numbers on my mobile telephone, unable to get through.”
No, that wasn’t plagiarism: it was the opening paragraph of an article I wrote five years ago in The Sunday Telegraph, describing British and American reactions to the events of September 11, 2001. Yes, I realise that it’s bad taste to quote oneself. But in truth, I can no longer remember the events clearly.
I see them now through the haze of everything that happened afterwards: Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Madrid, London. Inevitably, I also see them through the haze of cliché. The image of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing no longer feels shocking.
Nevertheless, I think it’s worth looking back at what people really felt on September 11, 2001, because not everyone felt the same, then or later. Certainly it’s true that, five years ago, Tony Blair spoke of standing “shoulder to shoulder” with America, that Iain Duncan Smith (remember him?) echoed him, and that Jacques Chirac was on his way to Washington to say the same.
But it’s also true that this initial wave of goodwill hardly outlasted the news cycle. Within a couple of days a Guardian columnist wrote of the “unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world’s population”. A Daily Mail columnist denounced the “self-sought imperial role” of the United States, which he said had “made it enemies of every sort across the globe”.
That week’s edition of Question Time featured a sustained attack on Phil Lader, the former US ambassador to Britain – and a man who had lost colleagues in the World Trade Centre – who seemed near to tears as he was asked questions about the “millions and millions of people around the world despising the American nation”. At least some Britons, like many other Europeans, were already secretly or openly pleased by the 9/11 attacks.
And all of this was before Afghanistan, before Tony Blair was tainted by his friendship with George Bush, and before anyone knew the word “neo-con”, let alone felt the need to claim not to be one.
The dislike of America, the hatred for what it was believed to stand for – capitalism, globalisation, militarism, Zionism, Hollywood or McDonald’s, depending on your point of view – was well entrenched. To put it differently, the scorn now widely felt in Britain and across Europe for America’s “war on terrorism” actually preceded the “war on terrorism” itself. It was already there on September 12 and 13, right out in the open for everyone to see.
Since then, the changes in both foreign and domestic policy in the US have been profound. Although I don’t need to remind anyone of the former, the latter have been largely invisible abroad.
Living in Washington for the past four years, I watched as the American government reorganised itself, often clumsily, much as it reorganised in the late 1940s, at the start of the Cold War.
The Bush Administration – with the support of the Democrats in Congress and elsewhere – created an enormous new Department of Homeland Security, a new directorate of intelligence. The Department of State finally shifted its attention to the Muslim world; new funds were made available for the study of Arabic and Farsi.
For better or for worse, the conversation in Washington changed dramatically, too, and as a result is now largely focused on problems of Islamic fundamentalism, the Middle East, and democracy (and the lack thereof) in the Arab world. For better or for worse, the “war on terrorism” has become what the Cold War used to be: the focal point of American foreign policy, the central concern around which everything else is organised.
The same cannot be said of Europe. Despite the fact that the worst subsequent terrorist attacks have taken place here, not in the US – and although it now appears that the most dangerous pool of Islamic fanatics is here, not the Middle East – I don’t detect a similar desire in London or Berlin to rearrange priorities or to change the tone of national debate, let alone to forge a stronger alliance with the US or to engage in what ought to be a joint project.
In part, this is thanks to the extraordinary diplomatic failure of the Bush Administration, which, believing its military power entitled it to arrogance, spurned America’s traditional alliances and launched a war in Iraq without making any preparations for the consequences. Although much of the past year has been spent making up lost ground, it’s hard to see how this President, at least, is ever going to be able to build the kind of international coalition necessary to fight what will have to be an international war of ideas against radical fundamentalism.
But perhaps Europe’s failure to enthusiastically join the “war on terrorism” was in some sense preordained. While not entirely incorrect, the notion that President Bush has wasted international post-9/11 sympathy is not entirely accurate either. As I say, at the time of the attacks, influential Europeans, and influential Britons, were already disinclined for their own reasons to sympathise with any American tragedy.
Instead of pointing fingers, the fifth anniversary of 9/11 might be a good time to reverse course. If “war on terrorism” has become an unpopular term, then call it something else. Call it a “war on fanaticism”. Or – as we used to say in the Cold War – call it a “struggle for hearts and minds” in the Islamic communities of Europe and the Middle East. For whatever it’s called, it won’t succeed without both American and European support, without American and European mutual sympathy. And whatever it’s called, if it fails, the consequences will be felt on both sides of the Atlantic.