US boycott of products from countries against war?

But the USA needs a German product: Vergangenheitsbewältigung

After a long succession of nasty diplomatic slips by US diplomats, there is now talk of a US boycott of products from countries that do not want to be part of the coalition of the willing. Too bad, for what the USA needs most is a uniquely German product: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a term often translated as "coming to terms with the past".

The "old Europeans" are now experiencing first-hand how the USA has been dealing with Third World countries for decades: might makes right. And while the German opposition is worried about tension in the friendship between Germany and the US, German citizens are justifiably asking themselves: what kind of a friendship is that?

As a German major at an American university in the mid-80s, I studied German at a time when German historians were bitterly debating whether it was time to take a more objective approach to the Nazi era - a debate called the Historikerstreit. As I struggled through abstruse academic language, I was far more patient with the views of both camps of historians than with my imperfect German.

On the one hand, the Nazis atrocities clearly cannot be relativized, as Habermas correctly argued. After all, even after dealing with the issue for many years, one never comes up with an adequate answer for the question, "How could all this have happened?" On the other hand, since 1945 Germans have openly admitted (some would say: "been forced to admit") the atrocities they once inflicted on the world and taken more steps toward atonement than any other nation on the planet.

The sentiment that this imbalance is unfair is not uncommon in Germany. But rather than arguing that Germany should not have to pay so much for the crimes in its past, I would like to suggest a better alternative: other countries should do more. We could start with my home country, the United States of America. Americans see their country as the embodiment of goodness, and the victory over evil in WWII and the Cold War has served to justify every military intervention since then. We freely admit making mistakes, but we won't even entertain the notion that we might also be less than good at heart. An article in a recent issue of the Atlantic - normally known for its clear thinking - provided a perfect example of this incredible oversimplification:

"America's wars have changed the world, mainly for the better, and they have had deep effects on the country's social and economic institutions. World War II led to official desegregation [n.b.: the races were integrated in the military starting in 1948, and the civil rights movement began with the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 - CM]. The Cold War brought a government-funded scientific establishment. But the signature turning points in American history have mainly been defined by what happened inside the country."

One marvels at the agile sidestepping of the Vietnam War here; after all, it is the longest war in US history, and the "victorious" Cold War can hardly be imagined without it. The US dropped bombs on defenseless people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, an estimated four times (!) more than fell on all countries in WWII. But such facts do not tally in the US's dichotomy of good and evil any more than the dozens of other "successful" military interventions in the past 50 years of US history.

Arundhati Roy speaks of a secret history of America - "Secret especially from its own people". And when we do admit that we have committed war crimes, we call them mistakes that must be forgiven, or at least accepted, as a means to the grand end: stamping out evil. But communism died in 1989, and since then the USA has been fighting the demons it created itself in the Cold War. The USA has become the greatest danger to world peace.

Today, Germans are being told to be worried about "German unilateralism". Bush & Co. have thus already won the debate; otherwise, we would be talking about how this war on Iraq makes no sense. Blair has already admitted that there is no link between Al Qaida and Hussein, and even the US State Department, with Colin Powel at the helm, knew of no such link in its 2001 Patterns of Global Terrorism report.

And if the West wants to know whether Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, they don't need inspectors anyway; they can just look in their order books. Though the USA was not the main culprit, US firms did sell such weapons to Hussein. And does anyone really believe the US did not know and approve of the many shipments from Italy, Germany and France? But now, German citizens against the war are being told to act as though they might go along with the use of force if the old supplies from the West are found, just to keep the pressure on Hussein to cooperate with the inspectors...

What about the American unilateralism we have been witnessing for years in foreign policy, environmental policy, etc.? Germany dare not criticize that, lest the German-American friendship be burdened even further. The German opposition parties who ran the country from 1982-98 know all too well that if Germany criticizes Bush & Co., they will quickly find themselves in hot water.

This tactic has a long tradition outside Europe. In 1990, Yemen was the only country to vote against the Gulf War, and a US diplomat was quick to instruct the ambassador of Yemen that "That will be the most expensive vote you would ever cast." Days later, the US cut $70 million in aid to Yemen. But even the enemies of our enemies are not our friends. In 1993, René Vázquez Diaz, a Cuban dissident living in exile in Sweden, explained why communism lived on in his country:

"Cuba is part of this troubled region, and any analysis of possible changes has to take the attitude of the United States into consideration: what real hopes for democracy with social progress would the United States ever permit in Latin America? [...] As in the rest of Latin America, there are democrats in Cuba who get a sinister pleasure out of this small, lone country that has the courage and self-confidence to defy the inaccessible arrogance of the masters of the north, speak with them as equals, and look them in the eye."

Now the German government is daring to treat the USA as an equal, for whatever reason, and not just play the role of yes-men. The reactions of US diplomats to this freedom of speech are not worthy of playground bullying. The Bush administration is out of control. They want to develop "mini-nukes" - and use them. They ruled last year that US soldiers would march into Den Haag, Netherlands to free any US soldier charged with a war crime at the International Court of Justice. They arrest innocent Americans and legal emigrants who are merely suspected of a crime, and the Patriot Act allows the government to break into apartments without a warrant and collect "evidence" against people not charged with crimes. And they don't even have to tell the people that they broke in!

Maybe it's time the world asked Americans, "How could all this have happened?" But instead of millions of Americans taking to the streets to call for an end to this nonsense, there are initial signs of a boycott of German and French products. As an American in Europe, I can attest that Europeans always make a clear distinction between US government policies they don't like and the American people they do. What are you telling the world, my fellow Americans? That you agree with Bush's "with us or against us"? Because if you do, the only sensible response must be, "With friends like that, who needs enemies?"

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