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The evaporation of sympathy

09/10/02 12:00AM By Olin Robison
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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison shares concerns about American policy that he has gathered from abroad.

(Robison) In the course of remembering, of hearing and being much moved by the stories of so much suffering and yet such resilience, of being amazed at the degree to which we the American people have come together, in this course of remembering, I find hope and promise.

I am nonetheless deeply worried, here is why.

All last autumn the conventional wisdom was that everything had changed everything. A year ago the shock was so great, so dramatic that it really did seem that the world was changed forever in some fundamental way. That probably was not the case. What has happened, however, has been a fundamental altering of America's relationships with the rest of the world.

I have spent much of the last twelve months abroad and so have watched and listened from afar. Now, back at home, I am frankly somewhat surprised at how different the public discussion is here and in Europe and elsewhere. The public discussion here at home is self-reflective on America and Americans. Internationally, something quite different has happened.

A year ago there was a worldwide outpouring of sympathy toward the United States in ways that were unprecedented. Now, a scant twelve months later, that has largely evaporated. It is gone.

One could site innumerable sources to back up this assertion. I will give one. It is from the a major piece in this last weekend's Financial Times of London. The article is by Britain's Sir Michael Howard, probably the preeminent historian of war and strategic studies of the last generation. Sir Michael is widely admired for his judicious and careful analysis and use of language and it is against that reputation that he makes this statement:

"...A year after September 11, the United States finds itself more unpopular than perhaps it has ever been in its history." That, dear friends, is an extraordinary statement from so cautious and revered a source. And so what has happened? How did we go in so short a time from such sympathy to such unpopularity?

Sir Michael's analysis in a quite lengthy article really boils down to a fairly straightforward proposition, which is that the United States considers itself to be at war and the rest of the world does not. There is more to it than that of course, but that, he claims, is at the heart of it.

Part of the anxiety abroad about what happens next is grounded, quite frankly, in apprehension about President Bush and the advisors who seem to have the greatest influence on him. He seems, as one commentator put it, to be intoxicated with moral clarity. This anxiety about the president's moral certitude is coupled abroad with a growing consensus that much of what is said in Washington and what it might lead to abroad is overwhelmingly driven by American domestic politics. There is unease abroad that, at least for now, the usual balance in American politics has been lost, that members of Congress who would normally be a counterpoint in public discussions are silent fearing that they might be heard as unpatriotic.

And so I return home to find myself enveloped in emotions that usually do not go together: first, pride in the resilience of the American people and pride in the qualities that have for so long made our country the magnet and the beacon that it is; but second, deep concern least we inadvertently lose abroad what has taken us so long to gain.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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