Rupert Cornwell: I'm disturbed by all this hostility to America

'To doubt the wickedness of what was happening was to be treated at best as a fool'
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The Independent Online

At the risk of being accused of having "gone native", I confess it was a relief to get back home to Washington yesterday morning. From a distance of 3,000 miles I had read about it. I had sensed it increasingly when chatting with friends on the phone. Even so, I was unprepared for the hostility to America at loose in Britain right now.

At the risk of being accused of having "gone native", I confess it was a relief to get back home to Washington yesterday morning. From a distance of 3,000 miles I had read about it. I had sensed it increasingly when chatting with friends on the phone. Even so, I was unprepared for the hostility to America at loose in Britain right now.

During a week in London, I often felt as if an entire outraged nation had little on its mind except the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The merest word of caution would draw quizzical and suspicious looks. To doubt the wickedness of what was happening was to be treated at best as a fool, at worst as an apologist for brutal tyranny.

What struck me most was the breadth of the critical spectrum. As only to be expected, the left, with its pacifist and anti-imperialist instincts, cares especially deeply about human rights and is especially alarmed by America's overwhelming power. But the right is in there too, no less loudly.

A fastidious MacMillan-like old guard regrets any blunt manifestation of pax Americana. "We, my dear Crossman, are Greeks in the American Empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans – great big, vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are."

The great man's words to Richard Crossman in 1943 exactly sum up today's distaste for the swagger and bravado of Donald Rumsfeld.

Then there are the latter-day jingoists, smarting at the fact that after the initial fanfare, Britain's role in this war has been marginal: the odd cruise missile early on, and some doubtless extremely courageous work by our special forces alongside their American counterparts, but that's about it.

Had we not taken part, it wouldn't have made much difference. Feted in Washington when we were useful, we have now been dropped.

The Americans of course have not helped their cause. The picture which caused the real fuss – of the prisoners in their orange jump-suits kneeling masked, gloved and chained by a razor wire fence – was a PR own-goal for the ages. This was no fuzzy zoom-lens scoop by a Fleet Street paparazzo. It was an official US Government picture, designed to show that the prisoners were being treated fairly but firmly.

Instead it had the Mail on Sunday, no less, ranting away about torture and slavery. Had the US behaved as the British or French undoubtedly would have behaved in the same circumstances, and thrown a thick veil of secrecy over the whole business, Mr Rumsfeld would have had a much quieter life.

But secrecy is not the American way. Pictures have been released, and reporters taken to Guantanamo Bay by the planeload. Maybe I missed them, but I do not remember Her Majesty's Government ever issuing pictures of the conditions in which IRA prisoners were detained. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has the press been given a tour of Belmarsh prison. Better to keep some things under wraps, old boy.

Maybe, under Clinton or Gore, all might have been forgiven. But the British have always had trouble with Republican presidents, especially ideological ones. They didn't get Reagan and they don't get Bush. Turning misunderstanding into open resentment is the awkward fact that this president, derided as a buffoon, has actually managed to run a pretty competent war.

And might not the domestic political problems of Tony Blair be adding fuel to the fire? This Prime Minister, who nailed his colours to the American mast, is now attacked for gallivanting around the world as the hospitals and Connex South East burn. Fed up with Blair's showboating? Then there's a fair chance you'll be fed up with America too.

Most worrying is the gulf in perceptions across the Atlantic. The divide is immediately visible in the war aims. For Europe, the moral high ground matters most. By setting up Camp X-Ray, the liberals argue, America and the Western civilisation it purports to represent are sinking to the level of the terrorists.

That is a stretch, by any objective measure. But for the Americans this complaint utterly misses the point. They believe that the events of 11 September forever give them the moral high ground in the war against terror. Washington's overriding aim now is to prevent other outrages from happening. British and other European critics seem unable to understand that the captives at Guantanamo Bay are not being denied POW status because the Americans wish to inflict special cruelties upon them – but because, if they were deemed prisoners of war, they could not be interrogated.

The 11 September attack was the worst, but only the latest, in a series of outrages by al-Qa'ida against the US. Others, by Osama bin Laden's own boasting, were intended to follow. Interrogation offers a real hope that these plans may be foiled.

But there is another and deeper chasm, between how the US imagines its actions are seen in the world, and how the world actually sees them. Americans are convinced their country is universally perceived as champion of liberty and democracy. The truth is that we foreigners admire America for its energy, its invention, its ability to create wealth. Increasingly though, we perceive the talk about freedom and democracy as just another smokescreen for the advancement of US national interest.

As for me, a wanderer between two worlds, I'll know what to expect the next time I'm in London.

rupertcornwell@hotmail.com

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