Painful as it is to recall those planes smashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon two years ago this week, it's nearly as heartbreaking to think back on the moment of nascent harmony that ticked in the wake of the attack—until President Bush decided to reject the opportunity that History thrust before him.
Remember? The French newspaper Le Monde, never one for trans-Atlantic sentimentalism, proclaimed, "We are all Americans." The band outside Buckingham Palace played "The Star-Spangled Banner" during a changing of the guard, as thousands of Londoners tearfully waved American flags. Most significant, the European leaders of NATO, for the first time in the organization's history, invoked Article 5 of its charter, calling on its 19 member-nations to treat the attack on America as an attack on them all—a particularly moving gesture, as Article 5 had been intended to guarantee American retaliation against an attack on Europe.
But the Bush administration brushed aside these supportive gestures—and that may loom as the greatest tragedy of Sept. 11, apart from the tolls taken by the attack itself.
Ever since the crumbling of the Soviet Union, foreign-policy specialists had been wondering how to create a new world order for an era that lacked a common enemy. Now, suddenly, here was that enemy. And here was a moment when the world viewed America with more empathy than it had in the past half-century. An American leader could have taken advantage of that moment and reached out to the world, forged new alliances, strengthened old ones, and laid the foundations of a new, broad-based system of international security for the post-Cold War era—much as Harry Truman and George Marshall had done in the months and years following World War II.
But George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice did not take that path.
Aside from letting a handful of NATO's AWACS radar planes come help patrol American skies, Bush's response was a shockingly terse: Thanks, but no thanks; we'll handle it by ourselves. Marc Grossman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, later admitted to the Washington Times that the United States initially "blew off" the allies. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said that the United States, in the Times' words, "was so busy developing its [Afghanistan] war plans that it did not have time to focus on coordinating Europe's military role."
The effect, of course, was to alienate the allies just as they were rediscovering their affections. As London's conservative Financial Timeslater put it, "A disdainful refusal even to respond to a genuine offer of support from close allies, at the time of America's most serious crisis in decades, spoke volumes about its attitude to the alliance."
As late as a year ago, around the time of the attack's first anniversary, the bloom had not yet entirely worn off. On Sept. 8, 2002, the French president, Jacques Chirac, repeated the words of Le Monde as if they were his own—"We are all Americans"—and added that these feelings "haven't disappeared," that "when the chips are down, the French and Americans have always stood together and have never failed to be there for one another."
Two months laterNATO held a summit in Prague, mainly to expand its membership to include several nations of the former Warsaw Pact, but also to devise what planning documents called "a comprehensive package of measures" to combat terrorism and other threats. Among these measures would be the creation of a "NATO Response Force"—the documents even envisioned an acronym, the "NRF"—consisting of "a technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable, and sustainable force … ready to move quickly to wherever needed, as decided by the [NATO] Council."
A week before the Prague Summit, Lord George Robertson, NATO's secretary-general, gave a glowing speech about its prospects to the NATO parliamentary assembly in Istanbul. "Prague," he said, would "give us the chance to demonstrate that not only our security environment has changed, but that NATO has changed with it." The summit would confirm that NATO was becoming "the focal point" for the fight against terrorism. And it would "debunk the myth that has crept into the trans-Atlantic relationship after 9/11—the myth that the US and its Allies are no longer able or willing to cooperate as a military team. … It will demonstrate that Europe and America are on the same wavelength—both mentally and militarily."
Of course, the summit did no such thing. Bush's delegates used it only as a vehicle to rally support for the impending war against Iraq. Rumsfeld exacerbated the growing rift by going so far as to tout the new members of the alliance—the small nations of the former Soviet empire, whose leaders tended to endorse the war—over the traditional and much larger Western allies, whose leaders tended to oppose it.
The centrist Der Tagesspiegel of Berlin editorialized, "Rarely has a NATO summit been dominated by the United States as much as in Prague." De Financieel-Economische Tijd of Brussels reported, "More and more, the Americans view NATO as a useful toolbox," choosing their partners "as a function of their loyalty and obedience."
By the summer of 2003, it could fairly be said that most of the world hated the United States, or at least feared the current U.S. government. A particularly disturbing poll commissioned by the BBC revealed that the vast majority of Jordanians and Indonesians consider the United States more dangerous than al-Qaida. A majority in India, Russia, South Korea, and Brazil see us as more dangerous than Iran. An international poll by the Pew Research Center reported that over 70 percent of citizens in such generally friendly countries as Spain, France, Russia, and South Korea think the United States doesn't take into account the interests of others.
Two years ago, according to the Pew survey, three-quarters of Indonesians had a positive view of America; now, more than four-fifths have a negative view. In the summer of 2002, two-thirds of French and Germans viewed America favorably; now the share has dropped to less than half. Even support for America's war on terrorism—a cause that should transcend politics—has dropped in France, Germany, and Russia from more than 70 percent a year ago to less than 60 percent now.
Over the past couple of weeks, as the fighting persists in Baghdad, as the Taliban attempts a comeback in Afghanistan, as Saddam and Osama Bin Laden remain on the prowl—in short, as the light glows dimmer, the tunnel stretches longer, the budget piles higher, and the desert-swamp gets deeper—President Bush seems to have realized he took a wrong turn back at the 9/11 junction. He has been persuaded to go back to the much-loathed United Nations, for assistance and legitimacy. In his televised speech Sunday night, he referred to the allied nations that had opposed the war as "our friends," a phrase he had not bestowed on them for a very long time.
He has extended his hand a bit late in the game. Two years ago, even one year ago, Bush could have delivered such a speech with an air of strength and mutual confidence. Now it is seen, all too clearly, as a sign of desperation and therefore of dubious authenticity. The opportunity presented by 9/11 may not be irretrievably lost, but it has been muffed, and its recovery will require more decisive signals than Bush has so far sent. It will also, to be fair, require a less prickly world-weariness on the part of the French and Germans. Maybe they should reconvene the Prague Summit and, this time, take it seriously.