Upon entering the room, I heard a "splish" and a "splash." I was at a fund-raiser for a middle school in Minneapolis, and the most popular activities were the dunk tank and the "sponge toss."
They're innocuous kids' games for some. For me, a German citizen watching the last week of a U.S. campaign full of mudslinging and character assassination, those games symbolized some of the worst character traits in American political and social discourse: humiliation and maliciousness from a position of power, exercised simply because one can.
The presidential race just ended was followed closely all over the world, and it's no secret that the majority of the world would liked to have seen a different outcome. The reason is a profound unease with the abrupt rightward shift to unilateralism of the U.S. approach to policy matters that affect the entire globe.
This an unease is especially strong in a country with German's recent history. The inflexible "you're with us, or you're against us" doctrine has firmly cast half-century-old friends in the role of enemies because of their doubts, which now have proven to be warranted. In contrast to predecessors Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton, W. has chosen to alienate his strongest allies at a time when they were most supportive and inclined to help: after 9/11. I had hoped for a resurrection of inclusive politics with John Kerry.
A recent editorial on a German news Web site (http: //www.dw-world.de) said that America's friends "don't even expect to be accepted as partners. What they do expect, however, is a certain degree of respect."
And this respect, many Europeans feel, has not been forthcoming under Bush's leadership -- from the unilateral gutting of the Kyoto protocol and withdrawal from the missile treaty, to rejection of the International Criminal Court and imposition of steel tariffs, to suspension of the Geneva Conventions for prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib:
What morality allows a country to retreat from landmark international arms treaties but chastise other countries for doing the same? How can one claim to fight terrorism by forcing a war in Iraq without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How does the United States justify developing nuclear "bunker buster" weapons while expecting other countries to sit idly by? Christian "We're good, you're evil" rhetoric doesn't cut it; neither does "We're bigger than you are" -- at least if you claim democratic principles.
One of the lessons I learned as a German is to be suspicious of the kind of unquestioning patriotism and chest-thumping now so prevalent in the United States, mostly among supporters of the current administration looking to stifle well-reasoned dissent at home and internationally.
No doubt there will be those who read this who will ask, "If you don't like it here, why don't you just go home?" The problem is that I do like the United States and care enough to point out a wrong course, as friends have done for centuries. It is time to stop vilifying and denigrating those friends. It is time to put down that sponge.
Torsten Mueller is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.
© 2004 Star Tribune