Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's catchy phrase "Old Europe" had the French and Germans apoplectic last week. It was hard to fathom the reaction. After all, blithe belligerence is a hallmark of the Bush administration style. It's been provoking transatlantic discord for more than two years.
From the standpoint of an American living in Europe, I would suggest that French and German opposition to rushing into a U.S.-led war against Iraq is hardly Old Europe. Old Europe is two world wars and a continent left in deprivation and shock. Old Europe is Cold War paranoia for 50 years, relying on the United States' nuclear threat to hold back the Russians.
European war dissent is actually New Europe. New Europe is united under a currency that's stronger than the dollar. New Europe is filling up with an influx of refugee Muslims. New Europe is where Mohamed Atta and company hatched their plot, and where Islamist terrorists are even now stirring up batches of poison in suburban London and hoarding weapons in the banlieues of Paris.
In France, the home of 8 million Muslims, Islam is the second religion, demographically speaking, right after Roman Catholicism. French culture is infused with Arab influences, from couscous shops to the Arabic dance and protest music called rai.
European countries, historically homogeneous, have their own social and political problems with Islam. The difference is they live cheek by jowl with it. The Paris suburbs are crawling with armed North African gangs, and the Parisian police are said to fear entering the high-rises. The politics of Germany, Holland, even Britain, are profoundly affected by their growing Islamic communities.
Europeans also hold in living memory the real effects of wartime on their own soil. They might have learned a little about bombs, occupation and the dogs of war. Perhaps that is what Rumsfeld meant by Old Europe. These people are in no giddy rush to sign on to a conflict that will surely bring suffering to the Iraqi civilian population, if not other parts of the world.
To Europeans, the United States looks like the Old World. Instead of cultivating negotiation and patience and a sense of global impact, everyone knows the Bush administration has been "hellbent," as one magazine cover put it, on war for months now. Aside from terrifying Americans with vague notions of imminent nuclear or bioterror attacks on U.S. soil, the Bush administration has done nothing to assure anyone that it fathoms the structure of Islamist terrorism or cares about the concerns of moderate Muslims.
A retrograde pall prevails at the White House. According to Newsweek, the elder George Bush was seen wandering through the offices of the chief advisors last week ("I'm just here to give a little adult leadership," the former president cracked), while former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "sat patiently in the West Wing lobby."
We Americans living abroad are constantly confronted by people who stop us to opine about what a disaster this war will bring to the world. In the United States, even though "the war on terror" is a logo in every newspaper and on every television news show, the topic of war feels muted. People go about their business, pacified with the Bush administration's indifference to dissent.
During a brief trip to New York this month, I caught a few minutes of the "Today" show. Katie Couric was with the troops somewhere in the Middle East and regaling Matt Lauer with her high-energy pep via satellite. Standing before a backdrop of American servicemen and servicewomen ripped from their families, Perkosaurus rex described an F-16 flight she'd experienced. "Let me tell you, Matt, it was a two-bagger!" Gales of giggles. She proceeded to hold up a camouflage apron with the "Today" show logo, made specially for the cooking segment, "coming up next!"
Living abroad, I had forgotten the deliberate lack of gravitas that infuses morning television; it was appalling to behold. Couric and her peers are forbidden by ratings to disturb bleary-eyed Americans with the bitter, hard truth about what war is. As Rumsfeld pointed out last week, ugly images like that belong to Old Europe now.
Nina Burleigh is author of a forthcoming book about James Smithson, whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution.