Europeans Fail to See Changes in American Hearts and Minds

John Zvesper

April 1, 2003

Before and during the present war in Iraq, many Americans have been puzzled — and outraged — at many Europeans’ hesitation to go along with what a few European politicians have actually called Americans’ "belligerency." The puzzlement suggests that Americans do not understand that Europeans still fail to see how the political world has changed since the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001. The European failure to see these changes continues to explain their current differences with Americans.

One reason why Europeans do not fully comprehend the magnitude of the changes arising from those attacks is that these changes have occurred not in objective economic or strategic facts but in Americans’ attitudes and policies. These changes in Americans’ "hearts and minds" came very swiftly, and many Europeans failed to notice or to understand them. They comprehended the horror of the terrorist acts, but they felt and even hoped that this would simply serve to make Americans more like them, resigned to live in a world where everyone is vulnerable to such acts. Even in Britain, there was a feeling of "welcome to the grown-up world" mixed into the sympathy that was expressed. Some Europeans feared that America might lash out blindly in a wild and vain attempt to get revenge, but they believed that such an American response would in the end only serve to underline that all citizens in the civilized world — now not excepting even Americans — must learn to live under the constant threat of terrorism, not only when they venture abroad but also in their heartlands.

One of the clearest illustrations of the changes in Americans’ attitudes and policies is the contrast between the way Gulf Wars I and II were justified to the American people by American Presidents. In the First Gulf War, the first President Bush had more trouble carrying Congress, where the voting was close, than in getting United Nations approval of military action, and he felt he had to reassure the American people that they were embarking on a short and very limited war: "this will not be another Vietnam," he promised. In other words, lessons rightly or wrongly drawn from the Vietnam War still trumped the recognition of parallels (which were also being drawn) between the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and the appeasement of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. The Vietnam War experience is no longer such a trump card, and this is what many Europeans — and some Americans, for that matter — do not see. Because of the revolution in the American people’s hearts and minds, the second President Bush has felt the need neither to promise that Gulf War II will be short and limited (in fact, he insisted on saying that it would last "as long as it takes"), nor to leave open the option of accepting anything short of the defeat of the dictator and his Iraqi supporters, and their replacement by a more democratic regime.

Unfortunately, it is not clear that a good ending of the war in Iraq would improve Europeans’ understanding of Americans, even if it did persuade more of them to go along with American policies in the future. Even if the war concludes in as promising a manner as possible, many Europeans will refuse to believe it has done much good, and will continue to think of it as America childishly lashing out in frustration, and causing not less but more terrorism. In fact, a bad ending of the war might be more likely to reduce current differences between America and Europe. For if the war is seen by Americans to have ended badly (too many American and British lives lost? no terrorist links or weapons of mass destruction revealed? no decisive defeat of Saddam’s supporters?), they could change their hearts and minds again, abandoning their optimism for something closer to European pessimism.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.