George W. Bush gave another major speech on March 11, this time marking six months since September 11. He avoided any controversial soundbites, such as his notorious 'axis of evil' comment. More important than the content, however, was the image deliberately generated: among the pictures flashed around the world was one of him striding purposefully out through a guard of honour of the flags of some 170 nations that he claims are the US's allies - the leader of the free world determined to save civilization. Hollywood could not have designed the scene better.
Behind the image, however, is a very different reality. Many of his allies are dictators for whom support of the West is a small price to pay for a free hand in their own countries. For these countries' people, by contrast, the US is a modern manifestation of the sort of oppressive, brutal and exploitative power previously seen in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and the British and French empires. Other countries - such as the European states - are more genuinely allied to the US: they are inseparable parts of the West, and recognise that the US's interests are their own; but they are suspicious of the US's domination of the Western bloc, and fear the consequences of its gung-ho attitude.
The US's problem is that none of these countries is fooled by the US's assiduously promoted self-image. They know that the US's real nature and ambitions can be seen in the fact that, in the six months since September 11, the Bush administration has overseen an expansion of the the US military presence across the globe in order to protect and promote its interests, and in the knowledge that the 'war against terrorism' can be used as a cover for any action it sees fit to take. US forces are now active in more countries than at any time since 1945. The latest new base to be announced is at Manas in Kyrgystan. When fully established, it will house 3,000 US servicemen and operate combat aircraft. It will also be a permanently-equipped forward base for more troops.
Before September 11 such a military presence in a former Soviet-bloc country - and one so close to China - would have been unthinkable. Now there are also similar bases in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Georgia. Earlier this month it was announced that 100 'military advisers' were being sent to Yemen to support government forces against tribal opposition. US special forces are already in Sudan, working with Somali opposition groups and preparing for operations there. Military advisers are also in the Philippines, and the previously-established military presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey has also been reinforced. The effective US hegemony over other countries, such as Egypt, Algeria and Morocco is well-established. In all these places governments are no longer free to do as they please; serving the US is more important than their own peoples or countries, and the consequences of failing to satisfy the US have been amply demonstrated.
Reactions to this US expansionism in other Western countries are interesting. Unease about the US's attitude is commonplace all over Europe. The publication of a leaked Pentagon report revealing contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea caused outrage earlier this month. There is also unease about the US's plans to go to war against Iraq. Even in Britain, the US's closest European ally, Tony Blair's government fears a split in its ruling Labour party if it decides to support Bush. Public opinion in Europe is far more informed than in the US, and many commentators are perfectly aware of the true nature of the US and its capitalist elite. There is an anti-American mood among some people in Europe that governments cannot afford to ignore. All empires and dictators have dissidents, and the West is no exception. This dissidence has not yet become substantial enough to challenge the elites' policies. One feature of Western 'democracy' is that it provides a framework for the system to absorb opposition without being threatened.
Sooner or later, however, such dissidence must develop, probably in Europe before the US, and not only among Muslim communities in these countries. The positions and policies that the US is taking, and forcing on its allies, make this inevitable. It is only when such dissidence comes to question not only the policies of Western governments, but also the systems that make such policies possible, that there will be potential for change in Western countries.