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Historian Tony Judt is the Erich Maria Remarque Professor in European Studies at New York University, where he is director of the Remarque Institute, and the author of A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe (1996). Here, he discusses the ways in which the experiences of Europeans and Americans contribute to differing perspectives on the post-Sept. 11 world and the war with Iraq, arguing that European reactions to the Bush administration's actions and rhetoric are understandable and that statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic will have much damage to repair. This interview was conducted on March 17, 2003.

Does what's happened to the Western alliance matter?

I think it matters in a number of ways. It firstly matters, if you like, psychologically -- but in diplomacy, that counts, too. There are a lot of wounded sensibilities out there that are going to take time to be reconstructed. In the course of that, all kinds of decisions that would have been easy to take will be hard to take. Then all kinds of prices will have to be paid, literally, and in terms of hand-holding, to make things work that should have been easy. So that's one item.

Secondly, I think that both the Europeans, and the British, in this sense, will look very hard now, once this crisis is over, at the price they pay either for being with the Americans or for being against the Americans. That's not a question they have asked themselves in the course of the last generation.

What's happened to the old world order? Is there a sense of the plates shifting?

Absolutely. I think that the plates began to shift after the Cold War, but much less than people thought. Everyone assumed that 1989, 1990 -- the old world was coming to an end. There was no longer a Soviet Union. Communism versus the West was no longer the issue. There would be a peace dividend. We all talked about the end of the need for large defense structures and so forth.

Europeans worry that America might get out of control. I think most Americans cannot imagine that. They cannot imagine that their government would do anything to harm the world.

Then there was a ten-year unraveling of the consequences, in Yugoslavia, on the outer edges of the old Soviet Union in Georgia, Chechnya, and so on. There was the problem of trying to incorporate the western edges of the Soviet Union into the European Union. Then there was the question of exactly where America stood in all of this, which is not obvious.

At that point, a number of American strategists, including men who are now highly placed in the Bush administration, started to say to themselves back in the early 1990s that the new world order is not simply going to be the old world order minus the Cold War. It's going to look utterly different, and if we don't make it look different, it'll look different in ways we don't like. So they set out to imagine a world in which America would be the only superpower, and in which other countries would either be America's friends, or America's problems.

 
 

I don't think they anticipated that it would be as sharp-edged as it became after 9/11, but the outline picture was already there in their minds.

Are we seeing a collision of different ways of looking at the world at the moment?

I believe we are. I believe that if we think back to the period from FDR through, let us say, Bush I, until the end of the Cold War, we lived through an artificial period in which American interests and European interests essentially dovetailed. They saw the world the same way, faced the same external problems, faced the same domestic problems -- of welfare, poverty and the need for growth, the need for justice, the good society and so forth.

We have all of us grown up with the assumption that that was the normal condition of international relations so far as the countries we live in were concerned. I don't think that's now going to be true, and it's going to take an awful lot of adjusting. The change in that world is primarily a consequence of the fact that people are once again, on both sides of the Atlantic, saying, "The other side of the Atlantic actually does not quite look like us."

It doesn't look like us domestically. American social arrangements, economic arrangements, the degree of inequality in American life, the relatively small role played by the government in American public life and so forth, compares to exactly the opposite conditions in most of the European societies. Those differences, which seemed very small when we were all on the same side in the Cold War against the genuinely different enemy, now seem very large. They play into suspicions on both sides, that the other side of the Atlantic doesn't really see the world as we do, and therefore doesn't want the same things.

Can you explain how President Bush's rhetoric was seen abroad before 9/11?

I think that one has to remember -- and it's hard to remember this now because of 9/11, which has changed the whole picture and made it hard to look back -- but Bush was regarded both here and abroad as a man whose primary concerns were domestic. His interests were in domestic policy, his experience, such as it was, was in domestic policy. He wanted to reduce American engagement with the outside world. Certainly not engage in what, in the run up to the election, [Condoleezza Rice] called rather dismissively "nation building." "We don't send the 82nd Airborne in to take children to school in Sarajevo," as she put it.

I think Bush was seen as someone who was disentangling America from the connections that it had with the outside world, that it found encumbering for domestic purposes. So Kyoto, famously, the decision to not so much refuse to sign on ... to the environmental treaty, but the way in which Bush said there, "We don't do that. We don't do biological weapons treaties. We don't do disarmament treaties any more. Those are relics of the Cold War. We don't do international criminal courts."

These were not necessarily new positions, if you look at congressional debates on these subjects back through the nineties. ... What he was doing was saying very bluntly, "We are not concerned. We are not concerned about these things, but above all we are not concerned about your response to the fact that we are not concerned about these things."

So there was a feeling that Bush was disengaging America from the world in which it had been utterly engaged, from World War II through Clinton. That, I think, was the perception, of a man whose foreign policy was going to contribute to a world in which there was America and the others.

This is before 9/11. ...

Is there a paradox there, between the fact that Europeans either want America to be involved or they are [complaining] that it's cutting itself off?

I think there is to some extent a paradox. It varies from country to country. The Europeans have lived in something of a paradise, from the years after the Korean War until at least the 1980s, during which time they lived in an economic boom, which was unprecedented in European history. At the same time, they didn't have to spend very much money defending themselves, since most of the real costs of defending Europe against any ... threat were covered by the American nuclear umbrella, as it were.

So on the one hand, [Europeans] didn't so much look to America for defense; they simply assumed that it was there. By the 1980s, no one questioned it, except those on the far left, who didn't want it in principle. For everyone else, it was just the normal way of life. When America retreats, therefore, there is a sense that, "Wait a minute, something that is vital to the day-to-day arrangements of the world we live in is being pulled out from underneath us."

But I think one has to be fair to the Europeans on this. There is a distinction commonly drawn between America's military engagement with the world -- about which most people are, to say the least, ambivalent -- and America's political, moral, economic, institutional engagement, which everyone favors. I have never met a European, or indeed anyone else in the world, who says, "We don't want America in the United Nations. We don't want America contributing to the World Health Organization. We don't want America paying for, helping to pay for, the cost of refugees, for AIDS victims."

So ambivalence about American engagement is always about American military engagement.

Le Monde famously published the headline [after 9/11], "We are all Americans now." What's happened? What's gone wrong with that?

Well, it lasted about a month. It was a genuine reaction to a moment of shock. I don't think so much the shock that terrorism can happen. Europeans have been living with terrorism, in one form or another, for many decades, including the French.

It was the scale of it: the symbolic significance of it -- the World Trade Center in New York City, unquestionably the capital of the world. It was the feeling that somehow this was a moment of truth. You either announced that you were unambiguously with America in whatever it had to do to fight back against this kind of terrorism, or the opposition was ethically and politically very questionable indeed.

What happened, I think, is a combination of domestic pressures in many countries to say, "Wait a minute. Well, all right, America didn't ask for it," whatever that would mean, which is ridiculous. "But America certainly has been engaged with the world in many ways which have made enemies. So we should not be quite as surprised or horrified as we were, that something like this should happen."

Then of course there was the question of the Bush administration's, I would say, monumental series of miscalculations, in the way it handled the post-9/11 diplomacy.

When you say a series of monumental miscalculations, what were those?

I think you have to begin, probably, with the post-Afghanistan war. Before the Afghanistan war, anyone who said we shouldn't invade Afghanistan, we shouldn't go after Osama bin Laden, could reasonably be said to be simply living in a parallel universe. It's perfectly understandable that they should have been in hot pursuit of bin Laden, and I don't remember any serious opposition to that in Europe. What happened after the war, though, is what mattered.

One could talk about the various details. But there's no doubt that the vital moment was the State of the Union speech, in January 2002. Bush managed simultaneously not to mention any of the major international allies that he had spent so much time trying to gather around him, and who had gone to the trouble of presenting themselves as absolutely reliable allies -- "We are all Americans now," Article Five of NATO was invoked to say, "We will fight for America; America's fight is our fight."

NATO wasn't mentioned. The U.N. wasn't mentioned, E.U. was hardly mentioned. There was a sense that somehow this was the world's fight, but America actually was doing it alone. And if America was doing it alone, then why need the world feel quite so engaged on America's side? Particularly when the rhetorical ratcheting up of the war on terror, from an attack on Osama bin Laden to the "axis of evil" speech, made Europeans extremely uneasy that American foreign policy had moved from defense to offense, and in a way that made it much harder for the Europeans and others to follow suit. ...

It's clear that 9/11 precipitated a war against terror. It's clear that when you're fighting a war, you need to say who your enemies are, and you need to go and get them. Why don't the Europeans understand this?

I think Europeans do understand it better than we sometimes allow. Most European states, after all, are actively engaged in the war against terror -- at the level of police, intelligence, security, control of immigration, rethinking their asylum laws, working closely with the United States Customs Service. So the war on terror, as understood by most people in power ... is the war against extremely complicated financial, political, networks spread around the world, that can only be fought over a long period of time and by close collaboration. That war the Europeans not only understand, they are utterly engaged in it. It's their war, too, and they have been fighting it, actually, quite a long time -- before 9/11 -- locally.

The war they don't understand -- and this is where 9/11's significance splits the Europeans and Americans -- is the war on Iraq, and more generally, the implied mission to deal with all possible evil states abroad -- Iran, Iraq, North Korea -- others in the future, Syria, and so forth. Here, at this point, there seems for many Europeans to be a disproportion -- not between the moral evil of 9/11 -- but between the particular target that we should be going after for 9/11 and the much larger, more ambitious targets that we have gone after instead, or as well, which risk creating more terrorists in their wake.

Why can't the Europeans make that leap of imagination?

Because they weren't in New York on September 11. I think that's an important consideration. ...

And if they had been?

They would understand two things: one, the shock element to an American population which has never faced foreign war on its on own soil. The shock of experiencing what is an act of war, not only on its own soil, but on the largest city, and on the most visible buildings of the largest city, and using civilian aircraft for the purpose. ...

And then the connected realization, both for the president and the political group around him, and for the nation as a whole: that the United States had entered a completely different world. It had of course long since entered it. But this was the symbolic moment at which it became clear that the United States was no safer vis-á-vis terrorism, rogue states, international crime, than any other country in the world. Because this was a new experience, the American reaction is much stronger, and much more emotionally driven, than I think an equivalent English or French reaction would have been.

But let's be clear that if Osama bin Laden had bombed the Eiffel Tower, the French reaction would undoubtedly have been to go after him. The French are not pacifists. The French have very successfully and rather unpleasantly dealt with their enemies, as they see them, in other countries overseas. In this case, however, it was the Americans who experienced this viscerally, and so the American response is something that it's hard for others to feel in the same way.

"Axis of evil" speech -- America is a religious country. Don't Europeans get that?

No. I think it's important to remember a couple of things. One, that in the course, let's say, of the last 40 years, Europe has become a secular continent. Setting aside the Muslim immigration of recent decades, most Europeans are well-meaning Christians, a small minority of Jews, and don't go to church or synagogue anymore. It is not a religious continent.

The United States has seen almost no change in the percentage of people who attend church, or synagogue, in the course of their adult lives, from the 1950s to the present. Now that is quite remarkable, and it puts America into a completely different category from the rest of the West, compared say to Canada, even, much less to Europe.

This is a religious country, and anyone who lives in the heartland of America will know that. People in this country believe not only in God and the devil, but also in miracles. A very large minority of them believe in the coming struggle between Jesus and the Antichrist on the fields of Armageddon, and that is quite closely tied up with views about the Middle East. These are all background elements, without which you cannot understand George Bush, and particularly the appeal of his rhetoric -- precisely what Europeans find disconcerting: the constant reference to good and evil, to moral duty, to absolutes, to "us" and "them."

Tell me about the language. Why does this language make Europeans feel uneasy?

Listen to George Bush, and then compare him to Tony Blair. Now, Tony Blair is an unusual European politician; he is church-going, he is religious, he is a moralist. So there's no question that he, too, uses a moralized language of politics. ... All of Bush's language is invested with either/or, this/that, us/them, good/evil, right/wrong. These rhetorical choices -- it's all this, or it's all that -- which make immediate sense to Americans for whom they are part of the language, particularly in the evangelical churches, of personal choice, personal decision, to Europeans feel much too simple.

[To Europeans], life is more complicated. Life contains ironies, paradoxes, multiple choices, perverse consequences. There have been too many complications in the recent European past for people to be sure about anything. It doesn't mean that Europeans can't tell the difference between good and evil. They know perfectly well who Adolf Hitler was. They know perfectly well, most of them, who Saddam Hussein is. What worries them is the certainty with which Bush feels he can go to war and be sure of the good consequences afterwards. The Europeans are much less sure of themselves.

Why?

They have much more experience, perhaps, than America has in recent decades of the complexities of political actions. Europeans, after all, have been engaged in the Middle East since World War I. The British have been there, the French have been there, the Dutch -- although not in the Middle East, but in the Far East, in Indonesia -- and they still have very strong memories of the consequences of fighting a war against an undemocratic local population that doesn't want you. ... Domestically, internally, economically, they can see good as well as evil coming out of them, and they worry about the wisdom of engaging so confidently in such complicated undertakings.

In April, Tony Blair went to visit President Bush. He wanted to find out how serious he was about Iraq. But was this just a matter of Blair going for a friendly visit? What was Blair's game plan? What was his agenda?

Tony Blair is an extremely interesting man. He is a man with a set of beliefs about how the world ought to look, how the world needs to be run if it is to remain at peace with itself, if poverty is to be addressed, if disease and environmental difficulties are to be addressed. So he has a world picture, which makes him unusual, for most politicians think much more locally and short term. He also cares about the United Nations. He is very interested, above all, in multilateral activity, whether it's Europeans, British and Americans, or the West and the non-West. We should act in concert, because otherwise we cannot hope to achieve our goals. This has been Blair's basic position.

He was very worried that Bush had goals which would work against this international concept. He, Blair, felt that he had both the influence and the perspective to bring Bush in, or to contain Bush within this larger view of how the post-Cold War world should be regulated.

Quite a different world view to George Bush's?

Absolutely. Partly because Tony Blair, after all, comes from a small country that cannot hope to remake the world on its own. So he has to think multilaterally if he must think big. This is, after all, the crucial difference between America and any European country. All European countries are small compared to America; small in size, small in the economy, small in their capacities. So Bush's first concern is always primarily domestic, as is that of almost any American politician.

Any European statesman, if he is going to think beyond the end of his nose, so to speak, has to think internationally, and therefore has to think about working with others. So Bush's default position was, "We do as little with others as possible, to avoid being tied down." Blair's position is, "We work as much with others as possible, in order to achieve our goals."

And at that stage, not much difference between Blair and the French, Blair and Chirac?

I don't think there's as much difference between Blair and Chirac, as the anti-French sentiments that one hears on the street today here in the States would suggest. Chirac, after all, until recently, had more experience of America than Blair. He had lived here. He is unusual for a French president in speaking rather good English. He has always felt, and I believe still feels, that France can do nothing without a larger network of allies and supporters; the United Nations is the crucial crucible for this kind of multilateral activity. France should work through it, and with it, and others must be encouraged to do so as well. Including America.

So I think you could say that Chirac and Blair start from the same perspective.

One of the motives that's been advanced for going to Iraq is bringing democracy to the Middle East. Now, there are people in the States who feel nervous about this idea, who say it's a big gamble, and so on. But it played even more strongly in Europe. Why is that? What's going on?

I think the very notion of bringing democracy to somewhere else worries Europeans. There is a fear that democracy is not, obviously, something you can just bring, like food parcels, and drop on the country, and they would be so obviously grateful because of its virtues -- that they will adopt it and become like you. That's the first.

The second is that Europeans -- you may think this cynical, and perhaps there is an element of cynicism in this -- but Europeans are skeptical of the virtues of democracy, taken in isolation. Remember, after all, that Turkey is becoming more and more democratic, and it's largely because of Turkey's democratic parliamentary vote that the United States can't get its way in bringing troops in to northern Iraq through Turkey.

Democracy can have all kinds of consequences. There is no question, that if you held a genuinely -- and I do mean genuinely -- democratic election among Palestinians today, Hamas would emerge as the victorious party. It is almost certain that, under any conceivable genuine democratic arrangement, absent any other changes, Islamic parties would win open elections across the Middle East, starting in Egypt, where they would have disastrous consequences. So the Europeans' response to the Bush White House rhetoric of bringing democracy is, "Are you quite sure you want to be so successful? Is this really a good idea?"

Also, they have Muslim populations?

Yes. The population of France, the adult population, is one person in 12 Muslim. The adult population of Russia is close to one in six. What this means, is firstly that politically they have to allow for the backlash of anti-American, and therefore anti-Western feeling in their own Muslim population.

Secondly, they have to take into account something that I believe the Bush White House has failed to take into account, but which is probably its single greatest foreign policy error. ... and that is the Israel-Palestine issue. It is the single issue on which every European country sees the world differently from America, including our strongest allies, Spain, Britain, Portugal, Poland.

Until an American president successfully addresses the problem of the occupied territories, of Gaza, of establishing a serious Palestinian government, and then maintaining the peace between the two sides and removing the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, until then, there will be no Middle Eastern peace. ... Only America can bring peace in the Middle East, essentially by bringing both sides together, if necessary, by knocking their heads together, and making them do what's necessary. America's failure to do that has undermined American credibility, from Europe all the way across the Muslim Middle East.

There's a sense here of anti-Semitic feeling in Europe, that actually the Europeans are looking for a way to undermine Israel. Could you explain what's going on there?

Right. I think one has to bring down the rhetorical temperature on both of those. Many Europeans see America as simply pursuing the foreign policy written for them by Ariel Sharon, and that's clearly nonsense. There is no doubt that there are people in the present administration for whom Israel is the priority. But the American foreign policy is not written around that, and it's foolish for Europeans to see the world that way, because if they do, they misunderstand what they are dealing with.

By the same token, Americans must not suppose, as I fear many do today, that Europe is awash in old-style anti-Semitism: the Jews once again face serious risks going to synagogue, walking in the streets, identifying themselves as Jews in France or Belgium, or Germany, or any other part of Europe. This is nonsense, and this, too, misunderstands the European position.

For example, it is possible in Europe -- and I could point to a number of examples -- to be quite pro-Palestinian and yet at the same time be among the least anti-Semitic populations. Denmark and the Netherlands are good examples of this. Those are two countries where the feeling on behalf of the Palestinians runs highest, but also where there is the lowest incidence of anti-Semitism, both in activities, in acts, and in public opinion polls. So the two are quite different issues.

I do feel, though, and this is undoubtedly true, that the Israel-Palestinian conflict has directly fed anti-Jewish sentiment among young Arabs, in the poor Muslim suburbs of towns like Paris, or Marseilles, or Antwerp, where attacking Jews is a substitute for the anger you feel but can't express by attacking Israel. That sentiment is undoubtedly there. It is not part of the population as a whole, and it has very little to do with the position, for example, of Jacque Chirac compared to that of Tony Blair, because on Israel, French and British sentiment is almost identical.

June 1, 2002, the president made a speech which basically said [that] containment's finished, we need to start thinking about pre-emptive strikes. How important was this speech? It may have offended Europeans, but wasn't he speaking the truth?

Well, there are lots of ways in which you can speak the truth, and not offending people is quite important, if you want to keep them on your side when you need to act at some later point. So the offense is not irrelevant.

However, I think two separate issues need to be sorted out here. Pre-emption -- that is to say, "We are going to find out who might be a threat to us, and we are going to get in there and forestall it" -- is a perfectly legitimate military and moral and legal position. However, you need to have very good reason for believing that you are about to be attacked. You need to have very good reason for believing that the other side not only has the means to damage you, but intends to, and the United States has not successfully convinced most of its allies that Iraq represents a real and immediate threat to the United States itself. So the pre-emptive doctrine there seems rather stretched, and because it's stretched, it looks as though it's something which could become a dangerous precedent.

Why, for example, should China not announce at some point in the future that on pre-emptive grounds it's decided to attack Taiwan? It doesn't have to prove that Taiwan was planning to attack it the following week. All it has to show is that Taiwan has weapons of mass destruction that could be used against China, or that many Taiwanese politicians might want to do so. That would be enough on this precedent. So the fear of the precedent, and the lack of urgency, are what worry Europeans when they look at the pre-emption doctrine.

The containment issue I think correct. There, I think it's true that the Cold War categories -- containment, arms control, negotiated arms reductions and so on -- don't work as well, and therefore may not be as relevant, as they did when you had two more or less balanced superpowers with essentially similar interests. We don't have that anymore, and on that, I agree that the Americans were right to move on.

Something that struck me -- and indeed it's struck some of the American journalists I have been talking to -- is that speech wasn't a big deal here. It wasn't a big issue, and the new national security doctrine, the pre-emption part, wasn't seen as a big deal. But it played an entirely different way in Europe. Could you explain why?

It has to do with the differences between America and Europe. ... Any action or policy which the president takes or announces in defense of the United States is for that reason alone unproblematic. He is both entitled to do that, and indeed he is required to do that. And he's not required to go and ask permission for it from anyone else.

From the point of view of the rest of the world, it looks rather different. Firstly, because there are very few other countries which are in a position to make such announcements. ... Secondly, because historically they have tended, when they can do it, to do it quietly, so that the pre-emptive actions of the British or the French in Africa, for example, were not presented as doctrines, and indeed not much announced at all. They were simply undertaken.

It's this American propensity for announcing, in very large and general and rather patriotic terms, the doctrines that are to be followed to defend the country -- all of which of course is largely about domestic politics -- that others find worrying, because they are such a loud and therefore unwithdrawable statement of belligerent intention. ...

Europeans are frightened of something which Americans by definition can't be frightened of. Europeans worry that America might get out of control -- that America, because of its military capacity, because of the impact of 9/11, because of the unquestionably aggressive intent of some of Bush's advisors, that America might really do foolish things in the world.

I think most Americans cannot imagine that. They cannot imagine that their government -- they themselves -- would do anything to harm the world, or deliberately to destabilize it. So Americans have trouble understanding that the Europeans might see them that way. And if the Europeans see them that way, then how much more so are they seen that way by non-Europeans?

That's a very important point. What does the fact that the chancellor of Germany plumped for an anti-war strategy to win an election tell us about the sentiment in Europe?

You know, Tip O'Neill, who used to be the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives and a local politician from Boston, once said that all politics is local. All German politics is local. Germany isn't a great power. That's one of the reasons why Schroeder did what he did; he was desperate to win a very close election. Winning an election in Germany is easier by emphasizing the pacifist ticket than by any other single issue, because there you are playing to a strong German sense that we don't want to be involved in anything that reminds us of our past. So I think it was -- if not a legitimate -- a perfectly understandable tactical political move domestically.

I don't think it would ever have occurred to Schroeder that the Americans would respond the way they did. Because historically, in the course of the last 40 years, from the days of Eisenhower through to Bush's father, European and American domestic politics were understood on both sides of the Atlantic to be domestic politics. If someone like Charles de Gaulle, or even Richard Nixon, said something which was on the face of it disturbing to his allies on the other side of the Atlantic, it was always played down. It was never discussed, much less criticized in public, it was understood to be for domestic consumption.

Schroeder's speech and his whole position was for domestic consumption. But Bush and the Bush team took it, wrote it up, made quite a big deal of it -- and in fact put Schroeder up against the wall, giving him no choice but to maintain his position, after the election, audibly and visibly, in ways that he probably didn't intend to.

Misjudgment?

Absolutely.

In September 2002, Blair went to meet Bush again. The president, by all accounts, had decided to go for a U.N. approach, but there was a tremendous battle within the administration about whether there should be another U.N. resolution. What was Blair's game plan? How does this fit into the pattern that was seen earlier? What is he thinking as he goes to that meeting?

I think at each stage in this story, Blair has a little less room for maneuver. He starts off under the assumption that he really is in a position to shape a multilateral engagement against Iraq through the United Nations, which will simultaneously strengthen his own standing as a European leader of international significance, strengthen the United Nations, and tie the Americans into the United Nations, even while allowing them to get what they want in the Middle East.

By September, it was clear to him that this was not going to be as easy as he thought. At that point, really, keeping America engaged in the United Nations was already a major challenge. He succeeded, but at a price that I don't think he anticipated, in that he himself now was forced to become much more part of the American position, vis-á-vis the United Nations, vis-á-vis of the critics, than he would ever have intended. So it was becoming Blair's war. ...

[What went wrong? What has he lost?]

Blair was too optimistic, too naive, too idealistic, too self-confident. He could have become the bridge in his own right between Europe and America, through the United Nations, while maintaining his standing as a credible future leader of Europe, and bringing the British along with him. And he has failed on all three fronts. He has failed, if you like, heroically, but there is no question that anything that happens now is not what he wanted.

 

 

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