David Aaronovitch: Help! There's been an outbreak of Pinterism

'They argue that the US, alone among nations, should have no reason to get angry when its citizens are killed'


Nine actors and authors wrote to this newspaper yesterday calling for there to be no war against terrorism. And they are, all nine of them, honourable men and women. Some have worked hard for refugees and for people who have been persecuted or the victims of injustice. And a part of their argument – that certain forms of military action could act merely to create more terrorism – seems to me to be mere common sense.

But there is nevertheless something wrong here. You encounter it in the assertion that: "in Afghanistan four million people are homeless and scores of thousands are starving or dying of cholera because of sanctions imposed by the West..." This is current affairs as taught by a priest. Four million people in Afghanistan are not homeless because of Western (ie American and British) sanctions, but because 22 years of war and five years of rule by a bunch of religious bigots has destroyed the infrastructure of their country, such as it was. The "West" has played its part in those 22 years of destruction, as has the East, as particularly have Afghanistan's neighbours, as have many Afghans themselves.

The sentence is just wrong. But it is wrong for a reason. There is a reflex reaction, an instinctive, almost involuntary response, the result of 50 years of Cold War. According to the nine actors and authors, children die in Iraq because of UN sanctions, not because of the way in which Saddam has used the resources available to him. The implication in what they write is that if the US would only go away, or dramatically change its behaviour then terrorism – by and large – would cease.

In the past week I have watched mono-causalists like this get themselves into the incredible position of arguing that the US, alone among nations, should have no great reason to be hurt and angry when its citizens are butchered. The Afghans might have cause to go all blood-lusty if some of their folks are killed, but not the Yanks. So which is it? Are the Americans demons who must be expected to destroy the world in their search for vengeance? Or saints who we can call upon to forgive the extraordinary act of war of 11 September?

It also amazes me that some British honourables seemed more bothered when a fatwa was issued against a British novelist, or by the demolition of ancient statues of the Buddha, than they have been by the death of 6,000 civilians in New York. I do not recall the argument about how the dead of the West were being "privileged" above those in the rest of the world, being made at the time of Omagh, for instance. Perhaps no one would have dared – too close to home.

If you are a pacifist, someone who would have refused to fight in the Second World War, say, then it is perfectly consistent to argue in principle against the taking of action against terrorism. But many of those who have decided in advance that whatever action the US is about to take must be wrong, are not pacifists: Harold Pinter, as far as I know, is not a pacifist. Like many others in this country he campaigned and argued (in the most vituperative terms) against the bombing of Serbia. He thinks Tony Blair should be arraigned in The Hague along with Milosevic. The Albanians of Kosovo, however (Muslims, as it happens) tend not to agree.

Pinterism is all around, wearing its badges stating, "Don't blame me, I'm against it, whatever it is," and is as wrong as ever. Despite the dreary cartoonists' clichés, there has been no cowboy action by the US. Bush, far from going around stoking up anti-Muslim hatred, has been at pains to visit mosques and reassure the Muslims of America. In this country Blunkett has not rushed in to curtail civil liberties, but instead has resisted the temptations placed before him (not least by BBC interviewers) to take hurried action against the most noisy and unrepresentative of our domestic fundamentalists.

So far so good, for those of us who believe that the US, like other countries, is entitled to take action to protect its citizens. When the Soho bomber, David Copeland, was placing nail-bombs in gay pubs and elsewhere, I don't recall many worries from the honourables that innocent right-wingers might be targeted by the police. My concern is that the action taken should be intelligent, and should be taken after consideration of the long-term consequences. I have no moral problem with the destruction of bin Laden and his network.

In this I think I represent yet another dreaded Third Way. The old left and the anti-globalisers both stand, it seems to me, for a retreat back to localism. They see globalisation – the power of the supra-national over the national (best represented by multinational companies and international bodies) – as an unmitigated ill, the destroyer of environment, community and authenticity. They would like to see the reconstruction of moral societies, and a form of economic self-sufficiency.

So, too, would the old right. The retiring chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the North Carolinian gentleman racist, Jesse Helms, is a perfect protagonist of American unilateralism. For him only his country's immediate interests should ever animate its dealings with other countries. He didn't want it in the UN, he didn't want it to sign Kyoto, he didn't want it in Bosnia, he didn't want it in Kosovo. His influence can still be felt on the right-hand side of George Bush.

Both sides are, of course, prone to contradictions. The left, for instance, does not want the Americans to intervene because they are clumsy cowboy capitalists, but blame Clinton for not intervening in Rwanda, and desperately desired troops to be sent in to assist the East Timorese.

For me the lessons of Yugoslavia, of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and of the struggle of the environment lead me in the direction of increased multinationalism, not less. I am proud that British soldiers are – right now – trying to uphold a peace in Macedonia, or giving some of the people of Sierra Leone a chance. I fear the consequences of inaction or incomplete action more than the risks of actually intervening. Those who opposed the Gulf War or the Kosovan actions would, if successful, have had more blood on their inert hands than the allies did. It was, in hindsight, a mistake not to topple Saddam back in 1991.

So I want America there. But not just (or even mainly) militarily or economically. I don't think the world "hates" the US at all. But I do think that America is bitterly resented for holding out so much promise of freedom and wealth, and then deserting those who look to it. The international tools of peace (and here I agree with the nine actors and authors) are measures to defeat poverty through debt reduction, targeted aid and full involvement. We need less unilateralism (which is the real problem with missile defence), less talk of short-term interest, and more strategic cooperation. Political globalisation is lagging behind economic globalisation, and that is dangerous.

I want America hosting peace talks at Camp David. I want America helping out in the Balkans. I want America at future Durbans and Kyotos. I want more America in our lives, not less.


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