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Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005

One of the last great anti-America rants

LONDON -- They gave British playwright Harold Pinter the Nobel Prize for Literature recently, and the committee that awarded it made particular note of his lifelong opposition to "oppression." So Pinter, 75 and ailing, sent his acceptance speech to Stockholm by pretaped video link, and at its heart, as everybody expected, was yet another anti-American rant.

It was probably Pinter's last public attack on the United States, and it was to be savored, in a perverse sort of way, because such performances, a staple of global political theater for the past 50 years, are coming to an end. They were fueled by impotent rage at the often selfish and sometimes brutal ways in which the U.S. has wielded its great power, but that, too, is coming to a end. Soon the music will change -- although Americans may like the new tune even less.

After some preliminary remarks about writing plays, Pinter's acceptance speech attacked America not just for the invasion of Iraq, the misdeed of the moment, but for every sin it has committed since World War II: "The United State supported, and in many cases engendered, every rightwing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador and, of course, Chile. . . . Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. . . . and they are attributable to U.S. foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

"The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis."

You could make Pinter's list of countries even longer, if you wished, but the striking thing about it is that over half the countries he names are in Latin America, although only a tenth of the world's population lives in that region. In Latin America, its own "backyard," the U.S. has usually behaved as an unapologetic imperial power, showing no more concern for local interests or desires than the traditional European empires did elsewhere (though it has done a better job of dressing up its policies in democratically acceptable language).

In other parts of the world, however, the U.S. record is less dark, and the dark bits are more forgivable. American support was vital in shepherding defeated Japan and the shattered nations of western Europe into a prosperous and democratic future. America and the Soviet Union were the only two great powers that actively supported decolonization in Asia and Africa -- and although both had their strategic motives for doing so, they were also activated by genuine idealism.

And it was the American strategy of "containing" the Soviet Union but not seeking to destroy it that got the world safely through 40 years of living on the brink of a nuclear war.

These are not small accomplishments, and most of the crimes that American foreign policy was responsible for during those years (apart from those in Latin America) were linked in some way to the world-spanning confrontation with the Soviet Union. If you were to draw up a balance sheet of benevolent and useful policies versus selfish and destructive ones for Spain, France and Britain -- the three nations that preceded America as the paramount global power over the past 350 years -- they would all come out looking considerably less good than the U.S.

So why is Harold Pinter so hostile to America? Because he has been a contrarian almost from birth. As a teenager he loudly opposed Britain's war against Hitler even though he was Jewish, and 55 years later he was equally opposed to the Kosovo war because it was the U.S. that led the attempt to prevent a genocide against the Kosovo Muslims. It's pure reflex by now; Pinter even sits on the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic.

Why did the Nobel Prize committee give him the literature prize despite all that? Because he is a very good playwright (though not truly a great one), and because the Swedish selection committee comprises political idiots. Such committees often are. For example, another one in neighboring Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973 for bringing "peace" to Vietnam. (Kissinger even accepted it, though his Vietnamese cowinner Le Duc Tho had the dignity and common sense to refuse it.)

And why are rants like Pinter's about to go out of style? Because what fuels them is the sense of helplessness in the face of great power, and America's power has gone into irreversible decline. It is only dwindling relative to the rapidly growing economies of the rising new Asian great powers, China and India, but economic power is the foundation for all other forms of power, and "relative" is the only word that counts in such calculations.

The debacle in Iraq may ultimately hasten America's dethronement as the sole superpower, but the inexorable GDP numbers say that it was coming anyway within the next 20 or 30 years. And once the U.S. is off the throne, people elsewhere will simply lose interest in the knee-jerk, Pinteresque style of anti-Americanism.

After all, people used to talk about Britain like that a hundred years ago, when it was still Top Dog. Even Pinter can't be bothered with that nowadays.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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