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Because of Iraq, 2 prime ministers had to go

DISCUSSIONS | June 09, 2006

Pekka Mykkänen, Finland

2003 Nieman fellow; Helsingin Sanomat

America’s reputation since the 9/11 attacks has gotten worse in perhaps every country in the world. This has been reflected in many polls conducted by Pew Research, Gallup International, Zogby International and by many national pollsters.

At this point it may be difficult to remember how people throughout the world were mourning with America after the attacks. Even in Iran’s capital Tehran a couple of protests were held to express sympathy for the 9/11 victims.

Finland, the northernmost country of the European Union, with 5.2 million people, was one of the places where people felt a deep sense of shock and sadness during and after September 11th, 2001. I remember my sister calling me soon after the attacks and asking me, her voice shaking: "How can I explain this to my children?"

In Finland most people speak English, most people are Christians and most movies shown on television are made in Hollywood. The middle-aged people read John Irving’s novels, the youth listen to Eminem and almost any Finn could list a hundred American movie stars, politicians and athletes in an instant. So it felt natural that when Americans hurt, the Finns were hurting, too.

When America attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, many Finns felt that our friends were rightfully going after the bad people. After the major operations were over Finland sent peacekeepers to Afghanistan with no noticeable national debate – it felt like the right thing to do.

But when America began the preparations for the war against Iraq, Finland, like many other countries, was split. There were some who bought the WMD story and there were those who felt that the Iraqis deserved a life without Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

Many critics, however, felt that America was exploiting the goodwill it had gained during 9/11. Finns began to be their "normal selves" – they remembered that they are usually suspicious about America’s intentions and the intentions of almost any great power, partly because of our long and complicated history living next to the Soviet Union and Russia.

Only 5 percent of Finns felt that Finland should support the United States in the war effort against Iraq, a Gallup International poll showed in January 2003.

Iraq became so touchy to the Finns that it actually led to the fall of two Prime Ministers. First, the social democrat Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen lost the 2003 election as the opposition leader Anneli Jäätteenmäki used secretive documents to accuse Lipponen of compromising Finland’s neutrality by supporting the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Ms. Jäätteenmäki, leader of the Center Party, became Finland’s first-ever female Prime Minister. But she had to resign after only three months in office, because it turned out that she had lied to the Parliament about how she received the documents that she used in her campaign against Mr. Lipponen.

Lying about issues relating to Iraq can cost a job in politics in Finland, although the country was not part of the coalition and is not a member of NATO.

After the war in Iraq and many scandals, such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, that have followed, the Finns have become extremely suspicious of America, more suspicious than many other European nations. According to the Eurobarometer poll in November 2003, Finns saw the United States as the greatest threat to world peace – ahead of North Korea, Iran or Iraq. A similar result emerged from three other EU countries.

In a poll conducted at the end of 2005, only 28 percent of Finns thought that the country should join NATO whereas 63 percent opposed the idea. The opposition can mainly be explained through the old Russia-fear but it is also a reflection of suspicious attitude towards the main engine of the alliance, the United States.

Like in many other countries, the negative attitudes towards America today are often born out of dislike of George W. Bush, his policies and the people around him. When Finns were asked in a Gallup poll before the November 2004 election, who they would vote for, if they had a say in American elections, 71 percent picked John Kerry. Bush had the support of 13 percent of the Finns.

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