Limited Hangout

Dumb Europeans—Part 2: The Bully Made Me Do It

[This is the second in a series of blog posts on anti-American sentiment in Europe, based in part on a mini-series produced by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and continuing our wider inspection of Dumb Europeans.]

George W. Bush’s extraordinary rendition program has been back in the news lately, against the backdrop of a new effort to rehabilitate the former president and of liberals inexplicably celebrating the CIA as an enlightened organization for its hostility towards the new regime. Thanks to the efforts of the very same Trump administration, a CIA agent facing jail time in Italy was recently let off the hook for her role in the CIA’s torture program, in the kidnapping of a terror suspect in Milan. Trump is following longstanding policy, inherited from Bush and Obama, of “looking forward” and ensuring that similar crimes can be committed with impunity by US personnel in the future.

Equally unsurprising is that agent Sabrina De Sousa’s skin was saved through a presidential decree from Sergio Mattarella. For all the official criticism of US policies and the widespread, popular anti-American sentiment, there is little daylight between Europe and the US. From recent memory, think of the attack on Libya, inhumane refugee policies, corporate-authored secret trade deals, and the imposition of brutal austerity measures coupled with channeling public money into private banks. Not only is it ineffectual to rail against “the damn Yankee” — it is, in most cases, a sign of either ignorance or rank hypocrisy, or both.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about this permanent state of European cognitive dissonance — between our fervent criticism of American misdeeds on the one hand, and willful blindness to European culpability on the other — and of becoming aware of it only after I settled down in the US. Beyond public discourse and private prejudices, this attitude affects major policy decisions and the reporting on them.

In 2013, my native Finland was drawn into the international scandal over European collaboration in the CIA’s rendition flights. Knowing how pervasive our collective myopia is, I was fairly confident I could find more evidence of Finnish collusion if I gave it a shot. At the time, I was fresh out of grad school, eking out a living in New York as a freelance musician with an adjunct faculty gig, but pored through Wikileaks cables and interviewed people in my free time. As it turned out, representatives of the Finnish government, facing pressure from the public and from human rights organizations, had asked Americans for “assistance in helping to ‘bury’ ” the scandal, while Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen personally assured the US ambassador that his government didn’t want to “challenge” the US on the torture flight issue, but to “limit the damage for both sides” caused by these “embarrassing” news reports.

This was the first story I broke as an investigative journalist, solely based on a hunch that whatever is going on, the public and media will ultimately rather concentrate on American culpability than our own. (Getting anyone in the mainstream media to publish it, and preventing the news conglomerate I finally sold the pitch to from totally watering it down in favor of the government, was a battle in its own right.) Of course, initial indications of Finland’s complicity in these crimes hadn’t been unearthed by some muckraking Finnish reporter to begin with, but by the New York-based Open Society Institute. On a few occasions, I had the chance to talk with the lead author of their Globalizing Torture report, Amrit Singh, who was baffled that the diplomatic cables I showed her hadn’t been discovered earlier: “It sounds like they’re burying a corpse!”

American leftists like to think of Finland as an enlightened Nordic utopia, and Finns are equally invested in holding on to this increasingly fanciful image. This makes Finnish hypocrisy a particularly good case study. Our prime minister groveling in front of the Americans behind closed doors was not an isolated incident. A year later, I wrote about the country’s leading role in secret top-level negotiations between the EU and the US concerning a “joint framework” for extraordinary renditions. This had been reported abroad, but not in Finland — my piece was published in a small leftist periodical and, outside activist circles, mostly ignored. In 2006, a six-member delegation from the EU’s side, including Finnish Interior Minister Kari Rajamäki and Justice Minister Leena Luhtanen, had met with some of the worst assholes of the Bush regime, headed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. According to an EUobserver report, Condoleezza Rice’s closest advisor, John Bellinger, had ranted about “human rights lobbyists” and the importance of “reducing the level of hysteria” in Europe.

Of course, when I asked them, neither of these former Finnish ministers had any recollection of such talks, nor could they explain why the meeting minutes were classified.

Similarly, my brother and I are the only ones in Finland to have written about the country’s unique history in the decades-long US-led aggression against Iraq. Not only was our tiny nation a member of the Security Council when the unprecedented sanctions regime was put in place, but headed the sanctions committee, with Finnish UN Ambassador Marjatta Rasi serving as its chairwoman — a fact that almost no one in the country is aware of to this day. The embargo caused unimaginable suffering, the deaths of around 500,000 children, and merely strengthened Saddam’s hold on power.

When we interviewed her, Mrs. Rasi oscillated between justifying the sanctions on the one hand, even praising the consensus that was struck between the parties, and on the other, denying that a small country could have any real influence anyway. A uniquely Finnish term comes to mind, one we were taught in school history lessons: ajopuuteoria, “the driftwood theory”. It states that we didn’t really opt to fight alongside the Nazis in World War II, we were just a small nation drifting about against our own will.

Back in 2002, around 10,000 people demonstrated at the US Embassy in Helsinki against the pending occupation of Iraq. Only years later did it become apparent to me that we were protesting in the wrong place all along. Oblivious to Finland’s disgraceful history as one of the prime actors in the sanctions regime, we still saw ourselves as a nation on the right side of history. But even as President Tarja Halonen was scoring political points for “bravely” criticizing George W. Bush, her fellow Social Democratic Party member, Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, was secretly pledging the government’s support for the looming war, international law be damned.

France was the worst. As much as the European media reported on various embarrassing facts about the US government’s previously warm relationship with Saddam Hussein, not much attention was drawn to the history of a man who had once assured the dictator of his “respect, affection” and “personal friendship,” while selling Iraq a nuclear reactor and securing lucrative deals on the country’s oil reserves. This was, of course, President Jacques Chirac, another leader who turned the Iraq war into a chance to play the hero for a domestic audience.

Our own leaders can get away with murder so long as the brunt of the blame can be placed on the US. Why were we not protesting against our multiple European neighbors who eagerly joined “the coalition of the willing”? Why is barely an eyebrow raised when a European head of state continues to clean up the mess left by our jointly-operated torture infrastructure?

Cynical realpolitik is to be expected from governments — including obediently following the lead of more powerful players when that’s convenient. The real damage happens when the public at large, including many self-identified political activists, buy into the narrative of European decency in the face of American barbarism, diverting our attention from what’s going on in our own backyards.

There’s even a term for this type of geopolitical subservience: Finlandization.

[Related articles:
Dumb Europeans—Part 1: Will Trump Make Us Love America Again?
Dumb Europeans—Part 3: Where Hogs Dwindle and Dogs Go Mute]