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February 4, 2002

America and Anti-Americans


LONDON -- They told us it would be a long, ugly struggle, and so it is. America's war against terror has entered its second phase, a phase characterized by the storm over the status and human rights of the prisoners held at Camp X-Ray and by the frustrating failure of the United States to find Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Additionally, if America now attacks other countries suspected of harboring terrorists it will almost certainly do so alone. In spite of the military successes, America finds itself facing a broader ideological adversary that may turn out to be as hard to defeat as militant Islam: anti-Americanism, which is presently becoming more evident everywhere.

The good news is that these post- Taliban days are bad times for Islamist fanatics. Dead or alive, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar look like yesterday's men, unholy warriors who forced martyrdom on others while running for the hills themselves. Also, if the persistent rumors are to be believed, the fall of the terrorist axis in Afghanistan may well have prevented an Islamist coup against President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, led by the more Taliban-like elements in the armed forces and intelligence services — people like the terrifying General Hamid Gul. And President Musharraf, no angel himself, has been pushed into arresting the leaders of the Kashmiri terrorist groups he used to encourage.

Around the world, the lessons of the American action in Afghanistan are being learned. Jihad is no longer quite as cool an idea as it was last fall.

States under suspicion of giving succor to terrorism have suddenly been trying to make nice, even going so far as to round up a few bad guys. Iran has accepted the legitimacy of the new Afghan government. Even Britain, a state which has been more tolerant of Islamist fanaticism than most, is beginning to distinguish between resisting "Islamophobia" and providing a safe haven for some of the worst people in the world.

America did, in Afghanistan, what had to be done, and did it well. The bad news, however, is that these successes have not won new friends for the United States outside Afghanistan. In fact, the effectiveness of the American campaign may have made some parts of the world hate America more than they did before. Critics of the Afghan campaign in the West are enraged because they have been shown to be wrong at every step: no, American forces weren't humiliated the way the Russians had been; and yes, the air strikes did work; and no, the Northern Alliance didn't massacre people in Kabul; and yes, the Taliban did crumble away like the hated tyrants they were, even in their southern strongholds; and no, it wasn't that difficult to get the militants out of their cave fortresses; and yes, the various factions succeeded in putting together a new government that seems to have broad support among the people.

Meanwhile, those elements in the Arab and Muslim world who blame America for their own feelings of political impotence are feeling more impotent than ever. As always, anti- American radicalism feeds off widespread anger over the plight of the Palestinians, and it remains true that nothing would undermine the fanatics' propaganda more completely than an acceptable settlement in the Middle East.

However, even if that settlement were arrived at tomorrow, anti- Americanism would probably not abate. It has become too useful a smokescreen for Muslim nations' many defects — their corruption, their incompetence, their oppression of their citizens, their economic, scientific and cultural stagnation. America-hating has become a badge of identity, making possible a chest- beating, flag-burning rhetoric of word and deed that makes men feel good. It contains a strong streak of hypocrisy, hating most what it desires most, and elements of self- loathing. ("We hate America because it has made of itself what we cannot make of ourselves.") What America is accused of — closed- mindedness, stereotyping, ignorance — is also what its accusers would see if they looked into a mirror.

These days there seem to be as many of these accusers outside the Muslim world as inside it. Anybody who has visited Britain and Europe, or followed the public conversation there during the past five months, will have been struck, even shocked, by the depth of anti-American feeling among large segments of the population. Western anti-Americanism is an altogether more petulant phenomenon than its Islamic counterpart and far more personalized. Muslim countries don't like America's power, its "arrogance," its success; but in the non-American West, the main objection seems to be to American people. Night after night, I have found myself listening to Londoners' diatribes against the sheer weirdness of the American citizenry. The attacks on America are routinely discounted. ("Americans only care about their own dead.") American patriotism, obesity, emotionality, self-centeredness: these are the crucial issues.

It would be easy for America, in the present climate of hostility, to fail to respond to constructive criticism, or worse: to start acting like the overwhelming superpower it is, making decisions and throwing its weight around without regard for the concerns of what it perceives as an already hostile world. The treatment of the Camp X-Ray detainees is a worrying sign. Secretary of State Colin Powell's reported desire to determine whether, under the Geneva Convention, these persons should be considered prisoners of war was a statesmanlike response to global pressure — but Mr. Powell has apparently failed to persuade President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.

The Bush administration has come a long way from its treaty-smashing beginnings. It should not abandon consensus-building now. Great power and great wealth are perhaps never popular, yet, more than ever, we need the United States to exercise its power and economic might responsibly. This is not the time to ignore the rest of the world and decide to go it alone. To do so would be to risk losing after you've won.

Salman Rushdie is the author of ``Fury: A Novel'' and the forthcoming essay collection ``Step Across This Line.''

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