During the build-up to the war on Iraq, an American friend - a proud Republican
- charged me with "visceral anti-Americanism". I indignantly responded that there
was not one iota of anti-Americanism within my ample viscera, but I was totally
opposed to the belligerence of the current American administration. That charge
still rankles with many of us who are constantly accused of a negative knee-jerk
response to all things American. Such misunderstanding is hardly surprising when
the spin doctors continue to distort the truth. Theirs was the deliberate confusion
of the so-called "war on terror" with the war on Iraq. There was no linkage between
Iraq and al-Qaida, yet the two antagonistic entities were misrepresented as the
same thing. The process was extended to embrace Israel, whereby criticism of the
aggressively rightwing government of Ariel Sharon was portrayed as anti-Israeli,
or, shamefully, as anti-semitic.
Such propaganda tactics are, of course, not
new, but have reached new depths in the repeated transposition of America for
George Bush. By this means, reasoned, responsible and targeted criticism of the
president's policies is misrepresented, for political ends, as an emotional reaction
to America itself.
There is undeniably a strand of cultural anti-Americanism
which is as old as the United States itself - from Dr Johnson's view that "I am
willing to love all mankind, except an American", to Evelyn Waugh's arrogant dismissal
of "that impersonal, insensitive friendliness that takes the place of ceremony
in that land of waifs and strays". Even Charlie Chaplin declared that he had "no
further use for America. I would not go back there if Jesus Christ was president."
Such long-standing and, at times, vitriolic views of America find some resonance
among American writers, from William Burroughs to Gore Vidal. No group has been
more critical of the American way than the indigenous intellectuals of that vast
land; and no group has been more vilified for its pains.
However, even they
are generally cautious today about the image of the United States overseas, particularly
when politicians wrap themselves in the flag and the constitution. Memories of
McCarthyism are alive and well, despite the honesty of the Noam Chomskys and the
Michael Moores of modern America.
What gives even marginal criticism such potency
at the present time is the extreme sensitivity of the two governments concerned
to opposition to an unpopular and increasingly costly war. Essentially, two men
- Bush and Blair - wholly miscalculated the course of events, both politically
and militarily, and their errors have left them reaching out in desperation for
For George Bush, it is perhaps more straightforward. American presidents,
even disgraced ones, tend to hide behind the stars and stripes. Great swaths of
middle America revere that flag in a way that Britons cannot fathom. Even so,
Bush finds himself in worsening straits as his poll ratings fall and George Soros
pledges his millions to his removal. Thus, approaching election year, he needs
good news and good television footage - hence his visit to the UK.
on the other hand, found it impossible to don the Union Jack for a transparently
American war - and a failed one at that. Instead, he clings to the myth of the
"special relationship" as justification for his dogged loyalty to Bush and his
extremely rightwing administration. It suits him to claim "the national interest"
in support of his stance. At the same time, critics of his position are painted
as disloyal, unpatriotic and anti-American. At every opportunity opponents of
Bush are labeled, explicitly or implicitly, as unthinking bigots.
striking is just how erroneous a claim it is to caricature opponents of the Bush
way in this manner. Many of the critics of the president and his idiosyncratic
views are fiercely pro-American in many respects. Many of us have American friends
and relatives who are equally horrified by what is being done in the name of the
United States. We admire many of the qualities of American public life denied
to us within our own polity. Just compare freedom of information within the American
system to our own diluted and restrictive Freedom of Information Act.
Blair, it is not knee-jerk anti-Americanism which holds sway in the UK. It is
the reaction of one old friend to another when the latter is acting wholly unreasonably
and unacceptably. In such circumstances, that old friend needs to be reminded
of his responsibilities to himself and to others.
In such a context, if we
do not speak out to President Bush, who on earth can? It is through those entirely
justifiable criticisms that we might inform our real friends - the American people
- of the damage done to America's standing and interests by the Bush approach
to international affairs.
· Peter Kilfoyle is Labour MP for Liverpool Walton
and a former British defense minister.
© Guardian Newspapers