Look! Up in the sky! It’s America!
WHEN TONY Blair flew to the United States on Friday for his meetings with President Bush and Rupert Murdoch, I hope the in-flight entertainment was “Superman Returns.” It’s a film that perfectly encapsulates the British prime minister’s very un-European view of America.
Blair, you’ll recall, was one of the few European leaders who bought the White House line that -- as he told the House of Commons in September 2002 -- Saddam Hussein had “existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated in 45 minutes.”
An essential part of all Superman scripts is a villain -- usually the dastardly Lex Luthor -- who is poised to blow up the world with just such weapons of mass destruction. Needless to say, Superman alone can save the world. The question is: Can he be persuaded to? Superman is always reluctant to exercise his powers. Although born on the planet Krypton, he has grown up as Clark Kent in the idyllic Midwestern town of Smallville, imbibing the simple, self-effacing values of the flyover states. In truth, he feels more comfortable tilling the soil than saving the planet.
As the new Superman (Brandon Routh) puts it: “It’s not easy for me to live my life, being who I am.” It’s partly this reluctance to wield power that makes Superman, of all the superheroes, the one who exemplifies the American self-image.
His other quintessentially American trait is that it takes a messianic impulse to get the better of his natural modesty. “Your father used to say that you were put here for a reason,” his stepmother tells him. “Every day I hear people crying for a savior,” says Superman. And if you’re still missing the New Testament parallel, here’s what Superman’s real father told him back on Krypton: “They [meaning earthlings] could be a great people.... They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all -- their capacity for good -- I have sent them you, my only son.”
This is precisely the kind of stuff for which Blair has had a lifelong weakness. When he addressed a joint session of Congress in July 2003 -- at a time when the smell of victory in Iraq was still in the air -- he revealed his debt to the myth of America-as-Superman: “In some small corner of this vast country ... there’s a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, ‘Why me, and why us, and why America?’ And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.”
Unfortunately for Blair, the rest of the world has a diametrically different view. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, even Britons regard the American presence in Iraq as a bigger danger to world peace than Iran or North Korea. A third of Britons think the U.S. invaded Iraq “to control Mideast oil.” A quarter think America aims “to dominate the world.” And yet it is Blair who is closer to the truth.
Take two measures of American power: the number of U.S. soldiers overseas, and the scale of U.S. transfers to foreign governments. The United States has a population in excess of 290 million, of whom nearly 75 million are men between 15 and 49 years old. Yet the number of military personnel on active duty overseas is little more than a quarter of a million -- roughly 0.1% of the U.S. population. When Britain “ruled the world,” that figure was six times higher.
Many Europeans imagine that Washington is in a position to dictate to the Israeli government because of the latter’s dependence on U.S. economic and military aid. So when Condoleezza Rice failed to press harder for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah last week, the press here overwhelmingly assumed American bad faith: “If they really wanted to stop the fighting, they could.” In fact, U.S. aid to Israel in 2004 was equivalent to just 3.2% of Israel’s gross domestic product, compared with 14% in 1986. Could the harsh truth be that the present crisis in the Middle East is a symptom of American weakness rather than the reverse?
Like Superman, the United States has vast potential strength. If it wants to be, it really can be “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” It is richer by far than the other countries. It has mind-boggling firepower, enough to incinerate Iran and North Korea in an afternoon. And yet, as Blair understands, this Superman would really rather revert to being Clark Kent in Smallville. Of course, the moral of “Superman Returns” is that when the messianic Man of Steel retreats into provincial isolation, the world is not the utopia of foreign imaginings. The way things are going, we shall soon find out the hard way that there are worse things than an American superpower.