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Monday, March 03, 2003

Politics

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Costas Simitis and Foreign Minister George Papandreou


Dear Messrs. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister:

First of all, congratulations on Greece’s assumption of the European Union’s presidency. All the initial signs confirm that you’ve negotiated your onerous responsibilities fairly and with considerable finesse. I cannot think of a worse time to be assigned the oversight of Europe — old or new (but, given the realities, mostly old). It is indeed a period fraught with exceptional peril and incalculable consequences. Nonetheless, you’ve dispatched your obligations with unusual dispassion and willingness to accommodate all opinions and sides to the issues. It is indeed this rare moderation that I find unsettling, and which has led me to write this letter.

I am reminded of the words of the father of modern American conservatism, who, in explaining his allegedly “extreme” views, famously contended: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” I’ve always thought that Barry Goldwater was right on both counts, and both politically and morally. There comes a time truly when “moderation” not only camouflages cowardice, but turns into an active agent of appeasement of and, ultimately, capitulation to injustice.

These notions are familiar to you: you’ve heard them ad nauseam for the last many months from George W. Bush and, lately, your fellow European, Tony Blair. It’s not necessarily the message that’s gone awry, however, but the messenger. President Bush, of course — surrounded by an even more accusatory chorus of aides — has been quick to denounce Europeans for appeasement and capitulation to Saddam Hussein. As an American, I know that our presidents, like the people in whose name they speak, have cruelly short memories. In Mr. Bush’s case, there is none at all to speak of; he even refuses to be reminded that, until the Gulf War, the major Western appeaser of and capitulator to Iraq’s mass murderer-in-chief was the United States itself. (I’m sure you’re both familiar with the pithy, Machiavellian rationale by which the US referred to any of a number of Cold War dictators around the world as “our sonovabitch.”)

Never mind: that was then and this is now. We’re a country, after all, that never looks back. So, what does it matter if we armed Iraq against Iran (our own Great Satan) in the Eighties? Or that, after declaring war on our former ally in the Nineties, we stopped right before Baghdad and, in so doing, effectively preserved Saddam’s despotism — and, not at all coincidentally, allowed him to crush his own people, who had risen up against him at our instigation and then were massacred while we looked on or withdrew from the field of battle (if not quite of honor), as indifferent to their fate as we were to our own treacherous complicity in it? Life goes on. No use in crying over spilt milk. It’s all water under the bridge — ancient history — as we say here.

And we hate anything that’s ancient, or even just plain old. Like Europe, at least the “old” part of it. (But what — and where — exactly is “new” Europe?) And we really hate it when the “Old World” (which we Americans fled, after all) tells us what to do — and, worst of all, why. We’re not good listeners. And we easily take offense. I would think that you especially, Mr. Papandreou, would know from your own family’s experience how quick we Americans are to anger: Both your father and grandfather found themselves facing (irrational) American antipathy and ill will at critical moments in their political careers (and in their respective tenures as prime ministers of Greece).

It’s not that we Americans aren’t smart, or unusually generous, or fundamentally egalitarian. It’s just that we’re also renowned (and oftentimes mocked) for our enthusiasms, which are frequently linked to an uncritical belief that we can do anything, anytime, anywhere we want. Which, in turn, translates many times into an insufferable arrogance. We are very, very arrogant. We always have been. We like to refer to it as self-assurance, but it’s arrogance, pure and simple; from the earliest times of our Republic, some of our closest and truest friends have commented on it.

Robert Kagan has put it very succinctly in his new book (Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order), which is short but illuminating. I’m sure you’ve both heard of it, perhaps even read it, as it’s been all the rage inside the Beltway (and undoubtedly among Europe’s own chattering classes) since its first appearance as a journal essay. Anyway, Mr. Kagan says (rightly) that there’s “a common and distinctly American assumption [of] the United States as the ‘indispensable nation.’” He then adds: “Americans seek to defend and advance a liberal international order. But the only stable and successful international order Americans can imagine is one that has the United States at its center. Nor can Americans conceive of an international order that is not defended by power, specifically by American power. If this is arrogance, at least it is not a new arrogance.” (p. 94)

It is not new at all. What is new is that American power is now of a unique and awesome “throw-weight” (if I can borrow again from the rich intellectual heritage of the Cold War) never before seen in the annals of humanity, and that we Americans are ready to use it — and to do so as we see fit. I never know anymore where the next day will find us. A couple of weeks ago, when I woke up and looked at my morning Times, I learned that we had dispatched 1,700 troops to the Philippines (to fight “terrorism,” of course): another day, another front in our global attempt “to defend and advance a liberal international order.”

The question arises inevitably: How can a liberal international order be advanced through continual and unabating war? Gore Vidal, the unerring chronicler of our national illusions, has of course answered that riddle in the title of his response to September 11: perpetual war for perpetual peace. The darkest road in this jihad (which is really the most accurate term for it) in perpetuity leads, as it always has in such circumstances, straight back home — specifically, in my case, to the heart of Manhattan, to what was once thought to be the island citadel protecting what was once the World Trade Center (that emblem, in its own way, of the “liberal international order”).

Which finally gets me to the real reason for this letter. On February 15, along with — as it turned out — millions upon millions of people throughout the world, in 600 cities apparently, my wife and I joined a global wave of protest against war in Iraq. (By the way, just a few weeks earlier, only 300 cities had been scheduled. Who says the Internet hasn’t changed the world?) In New York City, however — in Manhattan, the one place on Earth that suffered the definitive violence in our time of the “clash of civilizations,” or, at least (to echo Tariq Ali), of competing fundamentalisms — we, citizens and life-long residents and fanatic defenders of our hometown, New York (one young man held up a sign that read, “New York Yankees Fans Against the War”), were not allowed to express our fears and concerns and (almost endless) questions of and downright dissent with the policies of our own government, on our own streets, outside our own homes and schools, side by side with our own fellow Americans and New Yorkers.

Quite the opposite, we were legally prohibited from marching just a stone’s throw away from where, just a few days before, Secretary of State Colin Powell had boasted in front of the entire Security Council that he represented the “oldest democracy in the world.” What’s worse, tens of thousands of people were actually kept from entering the designated rally area, obviously to keep the numbers down; indeed, all of us who were there could see the police physically preventing them from joining us. (The New York Times now says that the number of people who in fact came out to manifest their opposition to Mr. Bush were closer to 350,000 than to the “official count” of 100,000.)

Messrs. Simitis and Papandreou, I have taken part in marches and rallies in this city, which I truly love, for over 35 years. Never, however, not even at the depths of the greatest division in this country over Vietnam, not during the anger and bitterness following the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 or the college protests following the murders at Kent State in 1970, not during the administrations of LBJ (who, regardless of his tragic flaw, was a democrat to his bones), Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan, do I ever remember a time when the City of New York — the one city to which every American has always fled to escape the other America, and to assert her or his difference and distinction and individual autonomy — refused its citizens the right to march to express their dissent with their government. It is terribly obvious that everything that’s changed in this country since September 11 is what’s always been best about it.

(By the way, some of the demonstrations in which I participated when I was much younger were against the Greek dictatorship that imprisoned you, Mr. Simitis, and your father, Mr. Papandreou. Just for the historical record — although I know you know this — I have to say that they were lonely protests indeed, as 99.9 percent of Greek Americans were either blissfully indifferent to the junta or, even worse, as in the case of the Greek Orthodox primate of North and South America, eager collaborators with it, especially since the US supported the colonels in every way. The historical record also bears out that then, as now, the US was pitted against “old” Europe, which tried from the outset to isolate the dictatorship.)

Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Foreign Minister, with all genuine respect, I would appreciate your answer to one simple question: What exactly are you defending in defending the “unity” of the West in the face of this manifest attack on the West by its most aggressive and uncompromising nation? What values? What virtues? What freedoms and what rights? Ten days ago, I got an e-mail from the organization representing New Yorkers opposed to war. Do you know how it began? “Here’s hoping that France will hold strong.” While I might not necessarily agree with some of President Chirac’s admittedly infelicitous expressions of exasperation with the allegedly “new” Europe, I do know that there are actually millions upon millions of Americans who are grateful to France — and Germany — for asserting a vision of the West that has nothing to do with, and is inalterably opposed to, the grotesque and unconscionable vision of Western “values” that has been concocted in Crawford, Texas. Mr. Bush speaks for himself and his co-conspirators, not for the nation that did not elect him.

The same day that I got that e-mail, Arthur Miller was thinking out loud about America, history, and the world in The New York Times (February 23):

Has the essence of America, its very nature, changed from benign democracy to imperium? Why do such majorities across the water fear and despise this administration? Too much piety, triumphal arrogance? We are being blasted by issues raised by an unprecedented American position at the top of the world. The meanings of words have changed; is it really a cause for unalloyed boasting that we can fight two wars at the same time, or is this to be lamented as the failure of America’s creation: the United Nations and the system of collective security? One has to wonder sometimes if the art of giving things their right names is being surrendered….

The bad part of being around a long time is the realization that mankind is endlessly rediscovering the wheel….

How many times do we have to indulge the same idiocies for which we must later be ashamed?…

How many times indeed? What I don’t understand, Mr. Prime Minister, is why you — who have famously never indulged idiocies of any kind — are indulging them now.

I think that most objective observers (even among your opponents) will agree that you are the most European leader Greece has known in the postwar era. Personally, I think you’re the only European leader in modern Greek history. So, why this strange (and sudden) need to defend American idiocies of which so many Americans themselves, as Arthur Miller rightly foresees, will ultimately be ashamed (and are in truth ashamed at this moment)? You’ve changed Greece precisely because you’ve rightly compelled it — always democratically but nevertheless forcefully and without hesitation — to become European. You’ve made all of us who are Greek proud because you’ve anchored Greece deeply and securely in a Europe that is finally resolute about its identity and purpose. But Europe must be defended; against its enemies always, but also sometimes against itself, sometimes against friends or allies, and sometimes simply against a form of unilateral global bullying of which only one nation in the world is now capable and that is in fact an unusually profound and pernicious threat to European identity and integrity and coherence. Frankly, I cannot imagine you, of all people, submitting to this intellectual and moral coercion.

You will respond that you have not actively supported the United States. What matters, however, is that you have not actively opposed it. You have not actively joined France and Germany — although you have a special responsibility as prime minister of the country presiding over the European Union since the beginning of the year — in speaking for Europe. Indeed, you have tried to unite Europe — surely a commendable task — in the face of active opposition to France and Germany from the UK and Spain and Italy. Europe cannot be united, however, between those who seek its independence and those who are agents of its subversion.

Forget Tony Blair; we all know the British (or, rather, the English) psychosis regarding Europe. How can one not stand up to someone like Silvio Berlusconi, however, whose very existence makes a daily mockery of and is an affront to European democracy (and the rule of law)? How can one not stand up to José María Aznar, of whom Spain’s most respected newspaper recently wrote that, in seeking to “become a privileged and triumphal partner of the imperial power,” he has “turned the pillars of Spanish foreign…policy upside down” (El País, February 24), and that, in co-sponsoring a new UN resolution with the US and the UK to supersede 1441, he has taken a “disgraceful step…to which the immense majority of Spanish public opinion is opposed” (El País, February 26).

Is that what Greece wants: to become a privileged and triumphal partner of the imperial power? I can’t believe that you would even entertain such a thought. As for Greek public opinion, we know where it stands. You will respond by saying that your overarching concern is European unity. I assume that it’s self-evident, however, that European unity requires an understanding above all of what Europe means, and what it should mean. It requires attachment to and solidarity with a Europe that is more than just an opportunistic assemblage of bourses, banks, and — not at all coincidentally — American bases.

(It is ironic that the only major resignation of a career American diplomat in recent days occurred in Greece. As you know, in his letter of resignation from the state department after 20 years of service, John Brady Kiesling, the political counselor at the US embassy in Athens, wrote to Secretary Powell that the United States has “over the past two years done too much to assert to our world partners that narrow and mercenary US interests override the cherished values of our partners” [New York Times, February 27]. “Narrow and mercenary…interests”: that is truly shocking language coming from a diplomat; coming from a veteran American diplomat referring to his own nation’s policies, it is a veritable J’accuse.)

You know all this, of course. It’s just that for those of us here in the United States who are, and have always been, your real friends — and Greece’s only real supporters, through thick and thin, decade upon decade — the actions, or inaction, of the Greek government during the last many months of Mr. Bush’s rush to war have, frankly, disoriented and saddened us. We trust you more than you can imagine, Mr. Prime Minister: on Greece, on Cyprus, on the future of a nation that finally actually seems to have one. We simply don’t understand why Greece’s stance on the fundamental issues that have arisen since the beginning of the year finds its government so quiet and, considerably worse, so apparently unwilling to take a clear position on what are, after all, life-and-death matters for Europe — which is to say, naturally, for Greece and its people.

I assume that some (much?) of this has to do with you, Mr. Foreign Minister. Most of us who have followed your policies in the foreign ministry have found them refreshingly indifferent to precedent and inherited prejudice. As someone who actually worked for you for a time — or at least for your ministry — I know that you are remarkably open to new ideas, new people, and new directions in policy. What dismays me, however, is how intellectually stale and conceptually corrupt the “new” can become if it is not continually questioned, and tested, with the same severity, and objectivity, with which we examine and assess the old.

You and your siblings have lived in the United States, your father was a prominent economist here, your mother is American. You certainly don’t need me to tell you anything that you don’t already know about American life. I think people have a tendency to forget, however; I know I did when my wife and I lived in Greece and then I suddenly had to return here (on posting, as it turned out, from your ministry). It’s different. It’s really different. I think one example will suffice to indicate the absolute universe of difference between here and there: George W. Bush is currently president of the United States whereas Costas Simitis is currently prime minister of Greece. (Let’s not even get into the respective methods through which each attained his position.)

And before you utter the name “Colin Powell,” let me respectfully cite Robert Kagan once again: “…[T]he caricatures do capture an essential truth: The United States and Europe are fundamentally different today. Powell and Rumsfeld have more in common than do Powell and the foreign ministers of France, Germany, or even Great Britain” (p. 6). I’ve seen Secretary Powell in action, Mr. Foreign Minister, and I’ve seen you in action, and — unless I am pathologically off-base — I know that the former has infinitely more in common with Mr. Rumsfeld than he has with you. (I confess to never having understood this persistent albeit inexplicable notion that somehow Mr. Powell is ideologically atypical of the rest of the Bush administration.)

In the event, sympathy for the United States in your case, or a deep love for it in mine, is a world apart from ratifying and validating policies perpetrated by its government. As with most countries, as with most societies, loving America — or, in your case, being a loyal friend of it — sometimes means opposing it resolutely and perhaps, depending on the circumstance, even definitively. Even in democracies, there are ebbs and flows in the continual tides of justice and equity and reason. Whenever these tides ebb, we have to be particularly vigilant that they do not utterly erode the constitutional ground on which a free society is erected and on which stands the entire structure that keeps our liberties and rights in place. There is no doubt in my mind (or in that of most Greeks) that you will be prime minister sometime in the next decade; it would be a profound injustice to you if many of your fellow citizens who should normally be on your side — and assisting you to realize your vision — should see your election as a retreat from national autonomy instead of as an advance toward a tolerant, thoroughly confident, and fully democratic and modern society.

One last general point, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Foreign Minister: I truly believe that, in the last few years, throughout Europe but certainly within the heart of Greek society, anti-Americanism has become the socialism of fools — and the last refuge of fascists. I cannot imagine any reasonable person, let alone a woman or man of the left, who today can be “anti-American”in any meaningful sense. We all know the reasons why: from The Federalist Papers to William Faulkner, from Leaves of Grass to Kind of Blue, and from Mark Twain to John Ford to John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. It is not coincidental, in fact, that those who are fundamentally anti-American in the world are, quite literally, fundamentalists: from Osama bin Laden to the archbishop of Athens and All Greece.

Thoughtless, irresponsible, undemocratic, and quintessentially fascistic anti-Americanism cannot be defeated, however, by thoughtless, irresponsible, undemocratic, and quintessentially cronyistic and sycophantic pro-Americanism. If I may be allowed a purely American example, only the Bill of Rights can defeat Osama bin laden, not the Alien and Sedition Acts. In your case, only principled, coherent, morally consistent, intellectually unimpeachable, and plainly irrefutable opposition to the United States when the United States is wrong — and in defense of the values of the West and of the overwhelming majority of American citizens — will finally cure the cancer of an anti-Americanism that actually has more in common with McCarthyism and the Ku Klux Klan than it does with any rational notions of democracy or opposition to arbitrary and willful power. (The irony here, of course, is that, in every basic sense, more unites John Ashcroft and Archbishop Christodoulos than divides them. As for the Communist Party of Greece, its pure incoherence and grotesque opportunism damn it more absolutely than any of its opponents ever could.)

I’m not naive, Messrs. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister; I’ll be astonished if either one of you reads this message in a bottle. The very most that I can hope for is that one of your many aides will possibly retrieve it from the Internet sea and (possibly again) pass on its gist to you. In any case, thank you for your gracious forbearance. Most of all, and much more important, thank you for your past, present, and future stewardship of Greece. It is immensely appreciated throughout the world.

Very sincerely,

Peter Pappas

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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