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The other superpower

Friday, April 4, 2003 - Page A15

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The most intriguing phrase to emerge from this "war," alongside the usual propagandistic bilge (shock and awe etc.), is "the other superpower," as used by The Nation, The New York Times, NDP Leader Jack Layton and others. The other superpower is global public opinion. It has the endearing ring of truth.

The justification for calling this another "superpower" is that it has led to formal opposition by governments to the U.S. blueprint. It hasn't stayed isolated in the streets and polls. Before the war, only Israel -- and the U.S. -- showed majority support for a war without UN backing. Since the invasion, that opposition has held, except in Britain and Australia, whose troops are involved. (In Canada, opposition has moderated but not reversed, after a fierce campaign by the U.S. embassy, the official opposition and much of the media.) This is a fairly rare case in which public opinion has been reflected and implemented, even in nations that habitually accommodate American pressure, like Mexico and Canada. It's hard to explain without figuring in that public mood. This new force did not prevent an attack but seriously impeded it. My question is: How dare they?

It's one thing to freeze your buns on a march, be derided in the media and ignored by your government, then long after, perhaps, have an indirect effect, like the movement against war in Vietnam or the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s. It's something else to see your government more or less enact your agenda. My God, did we do that? It's like getting what you wish for. Are you ready for the responsibility?

But why not? Who has the right to make these judgments? I look around at those of us pontificating in The Globe: Margaret Wente, Marcus Gee, John Ibbitson, Jeffrey Simpson, the nameless force who writes editorials -- not one of us speaks Arabic or really knows the region. What endows us alone with the right to draw conclusions? If these well-meaning ignoramuses can do it, why not everybody else?

What about experts then, academics or journalists who know the languages and have studied the area? Well, those experts who consult and influence the people in power actually seem to be more influenced by them. Take four examples: lobbyist/columnist Daniel Pipes, überjournalist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and professors Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis. Robert Blecher of the University of Richmond found (in Middle East Report On-line) that, during the first gulf war, each of them opposed any attempt to impose "democracy" in the Mideast. But imposing democracy has since become the cornerstone of U.S. policy -- as justifications based on WMD or links to al-Qaeda faded -- and, oddly enough, each expert turned into an advocate for injecting democracy there. Now prostitution is a traditional way to make ends meet, but it hardly means the rest of us will be impressed by their views. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis said he could always find a social scientist to say whatever he wanted.

Still, by what right and what light? I guess it comes down to the exercise of common sense. You don't need to be an expert or insider and, while it helps to be informed, that's just prelude to some serious thought. For instance? Well, what do you make of the unexpected Iraqi resistance so far? The U.S. has settled on an explanation: Iraqis fear the regime till they are certain it is gone -- especially since the U.S. betrayed their uprisings after the first gulf war. In other words, they, too, exercise common sense. But why not imagine they sensibly add in the impact of 12 years of sanctions, which the U.S. demanded, and which punished them while bolstering the hideous regime? This, too, would make them doubt U.S. benevolence. And why not assume any outpourings of gratitude we may see are as calculated as their absence till now? The Mideast has a history of welcoming invaders, then biting them on the bum. (A little information doesn't hurt.) And what of effects elsewhere among Arabs? Al Ahram's managing editor writes that "a new mood, something very like euphoria, has been growing. The Iraqis, devastated by wars and crippling sanctions, have been offering what appears to be stiff resistance." Might this bounce back into Iraq, so a new factor in resistance becomes not just residual patriotism but this new admiration, so they are not just fighting back despite Saddam but on behalf of the "Arab nation."

The answer is, no one knows, not yet. But you need not be an expert or pundit to speculate intelligently on these matters. Around the world, apparently people do, and it has helped provide the genuine, sober counterforce that experts and pundits had looked vainly for -- Russia? China? The EU? Global terror? Islamic fundamentalism? -- in a unipolar world, until now.

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