COLOGNE, Germany -- There were American flags all over the house I visited the other day in the suburbs of this lovely city. Two of the children of the house -- two German kids on the edge of what we would call young adulthood -- had studied in the United States and learned to love the country. What about the Iraq war? I asked their father, a social science colleague. They are able to make the distinction, he replied, between the war, of which they strongly disapprove, and the United States, which they admire.
In other words, between the country and its present leadership. It is not a distinction that everyone in Europe is ready to make. Hating America is the anti-Semitism of the European intelligentsia. It always has been. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has poured fuel on the flames of that hatred.
Why hate America?
There are many reasons. We are rich and powerful -- and sometimes obnoxiously loud. The United States saved Europe in two hot wars and one cold war. It provided the umbrella of military protection that enabled Western Europe to achieve the prosperity it now takes for granted. Cologne has come a long way from the ruins that Heinrich Boll described in his early novels. Without the Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift and the Seventh Army, that re-emergence could never have happened. Gratitude for American help? Rather, resentment and envy. No good deed goes unpunished.
Moreover, from the beginning of first tentative steps, American policy supported the development of what is now the European Union. For that, Europeans, so proud that their borders now include most of the continent, will never be able to forgive us. Like I say, no good deed goes unpunished. It is great fun to bite the hand that has fed you.
Now hatred for America is so strong that in countries like Germany and Spain political losers can become winners simply by running against George W. Bush. President Jacques Chirac, a corrupt and incompetent man, rises to new heights of popularity because he filibusters against the invasion of Iraq. One hears that he believed that would be his legacy. He stood up to the United States and saved Saddam Hussein, an ally of France. It would also appear that Saddam believed that the United States would not invade because France and Russia would save him. He had not read the writings of the neo-conservative intellectuals who had infiltrated the Bush administration and were determined to invade Iraq, and indeed preferred a unilateral invasion.
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It is galling that, in retrospect, Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin were right. Saddam was a bad man whom the world had to watch closely. But he did not have those weapons of mass destruction and had not participated in the World Trade Center attack. Indeed, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the prince of darkness of the neo-conservatives, admitted that the weapons were a bureaucratic pretext for a war that was desirable for other reasons (like ''reshaping'' the Middle East).
This time European hatred of America was absolutely correct, though most do not make the distinction of my friends here in Cologne between the Bush administration, which was not elected by the majority of Americans, and the good spirits of our country. This time the country is not being punished for its good deeds but for a very bad deed: a criminally unjust war.
It is useful to see how the war is covered by the European media, such as the BBC and Irish Times (which I read every day). Their ''slant'' is a useful correction to that provided (until very recently) by American media. However, there is also an evident satisfaction -- one might almost say celebration -- of the humiliation and corruption of American power in Iraq.
A retired American diplomat who had served in Ireland recently blamed the Irish Times for the World Trade Center attack. It is true the newspaper has historically been critical of the U.S. government, but no more critical than of the Irish government. Yet it delights now in every new American failure.
Hopefully, when the United States breaks out of its present obsessions, there will be enough people like my young Koelners who realize what it really stands for.