Over the past few weeks, the Bush administration has made a show of moderating its stridently unilateralist foreign policy -- it has asked the UN to legitimize its occupation of Iraq; requested the help of foreign troops to police its newest possession; and invited German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (whose government opposed the invasion) to Washington for talks.
Believers in the international system and the old Atlantic alliance, including Mr. Fischer, have seized on these gestures as a hopeful sign that America has not itself become a rogue nation, beyond the normal constraints of law and reason.
Sadly, these hard-core foreign friends of the U.S. are whistling in the wind, for all evidence points to the contrary. This administration is more narrow-minded, more ideologically driven, more hostile to international cooperation than any since Ronald Reagan's first term, back when the Cold War still raged.
Such Reagan-era behaviour has resurfaced most recently in the administration's opposition to the appointment of a veteran Swedish diplomat, Pierre Schori, as head of the UN's Interim Administration for Kosovo. It is no small irony that the erudite and engaging Mr. Schori, currently Sweden's ambassador to the UN, is another dedicated Atlanticist who frequently goes out of his way to say nice things about the U.S.
Indeed, I sometimes find Mr. Schori too pro-American for my taste, particularly in his friendly relations with Henry Kissinger. For example, in 1976, at the request of Mr. Kissinger, then-secretary of state, Mr. Schori intervened with the pro-Castro government of Angola to rescue an American soldier of fortune from execution. It was just one of several helpful services rendered by the government of Sweden's prime minister, Olaf Palme, in the fractious relationship between Cuba and the U.S.
But nobody in George W. Bush's Washington cares to remember these details of Swedish diplomatic history. Bad enough that "non-aligned" Sweden has a long tradition of opposing U.S. foreign policy, especially over the war in Vietnam and nuclear brinksmanship with the Soviet Union. To the current Bushites, the greater sin of Swedes such as Mr. Schori was to confront the U.S. over its murderous proxy war in Central America during the 1980s, when Mr. Reagan's ideologues viewed tiny, enfeebled Nicaragua as the greatest Marxist threat to the world since Lenin boarded the train in Zurich bound for St. Petersburg.
I visited dirt-poor Managua in the early 1980s, and found it laughable that Jeane Kirkpatrick, Mr. Reagan's ambassador to the UN, seemed to believe that the absurdly macho Sandinista directorate, garbed in their Castro-style costumes -- Cuban-style green fatigues complete with .45s protruding from their hips -- actually constituted a threat to American peace and freedom.
From this grew Mr. Reagan's overt and covert support of the Nicaraguan contras, his tacit support of right-wing death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador, and his establishment of a huge U.S. military presence in undemocratic but relatively peaceful Honduras.
It's no coincidence that two of Mr. Schori's chief antagonists over his Kosovo appointment are Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte, both of whom held key posts in the Reagan State Department. As assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs (and, incredibly, for "Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs"), Mr. Abrams was a ferocious overseer of the Central American carnage wrought in large measure by his government; as ambassador to Honduras, Mr. Negroponte acted as U.S. pro-consul for the whole region.
No matter to the present administration that Mr. Abrams pleaded guilty in 1991 to two counts of withholding information from Congress during its investigation of Mr. Reagan's secret and illegal funding of the contras; he is now Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council.
No matter that Mr. Negroponte has been accurately described by journalist Stephen Kinzer as "a great fabulist" who "professed to see a Honduras almost Scandinavian in its tranquility, a place where there were no murderous generals, no death squads, no political prisoners, no clandestine jails or cemeteries"; he now presides as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Imagine Mr. Abrams' and Mr. Negroponte's annoyance when Sweden, embodied by Mr. Schori and his compatriot Hans Blix, reappeared to impede American ambitions in Iraq. Thus the world is turned upside-down: Once publicly scorned, Mr. Abrams and Mr. Negroponte today intimidate the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan; they vindictively block the appointment of a decent, intelligent diplomat to a thankless, difficult job -- in a region where neither oil nor any other strategic U.S. interest is at stake.
UN sources tell me that Mr. Annan has already caved in to U.S. opposition to Mr. Schori, although he has not officially announced his decision to discard his own (and the European Union's) preferred candidate. This is in spite of the fact that the Kosovo post is reserved for a European, and that the choice is entirely Mr. Annan's to make.
Not long ago, American foreign policy was neatly, if crudely, summed up on television by one of its chief boosters, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Asked to explain the White House's true motivation for invading Iraq, Mr. Friedman reached deep into his subconscious for a metaphor that would fill out his analysis -- one, I suspect, that was drawn from Martin Scorsese's brilliant and terrifying Taxi Driver, a film that chronicles the sordid life of Travis Bickle, a would-be assassin of presidential candidates, who has to settle for killing a pimp.
After 9/11, Mr. Friedman explained, a terrorism "bubble" akin to a stock-market bubble required lancing. "What we needed to do was go over to that part of the world . . . and burst that bubble . . . what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house . . . basically saying 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You think this bubble fantasy, we're just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.'" That last line is what Bickle says when he blows away the pimp. And I suspect it's what Mr. Abrams and Mr. Negroponte are saying to Pierre Schori.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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