Published on Wednesday, January 8, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Canary in the Mine Shaft
by Alex A. Vardamis

Some two decades ago, I served at the American Embassy in Oslo. I traveled extensively through Norway and met hundreds of Norwegians. Positive feelings toward America reigned.

At that time, the United States' historical regard for the rule of international law and for human rights stood in sharp contrast to the policies of the Soviet Union.

Five years ago, I returned to Norway as a Fulbright scholar. Most Norwegians then still considered America the hope of the world. They felt great pride in their role in formulating the Oslo Accords and valued the efforts of the United States in furthering the Middle East peace process.

Last month, I traveled again to Norway. How things have changed!

The area around the American Embassy in Oslo resembles a war zone, with the streets rolled up to prevent hostile demonstrations. While Norwegians are still polite with American visitors, they are no longer welcoming.

Most Norwegians are horrified by elements of American foreign policy. According to a recent poll published in Aftenposten, Norway's conservative newspaper of record, 75 percent of all Norwegians now hold a negative view of the United States. This percentage holds true not only for voters on the left, but, surprisingly, equally for political conservatives, traditionally staunch supporters of America.

There are many reasons for this dramatic shift.

The Oslo Accords, the pride of Norwegian foreign policy, are in shambles. In Norwegian eyes, the Bush administration, in concert with Israel's Likud party, tacitly participated in their demise.

"The USA," Aftenposten explains, "exploits international agreements when they support American policy, but arrogantly dismisses those that it dislikes."

The looming attack on Iraq is almost universally opposed. When, after arduous diplomacy, the United Nations returned inspectors to Iraq, Norwegians hoped that war might be averted. But Washington's subsequent scorn of the inspection process, its dismissal of every conciliatory gesture from Baghdad, and its incessant bombing of Iraqi air-defense sites, is seen as aggressive warmongering.

Then the Bush administration, citing fears of nuclear proliferation, refused to let Norway, and other temporary members of the U.N. Security Council, receive Baghdad's complete weapons report. Norway, long an advocate of nuclear-free zones and disarmament, was deeply insulted.

Does this small, northern European country matter? In the world of realpolitik, probably not.

But the sudden plummet in Norway's regard for America should set off alarm bells in Washington. Like the canary in the mine shaft, Norway is small and inconsequential. But when the plucky bird ceases to sing, something noxious and foul is in the air.

Alex A. Vardamis, a Carmel resident and retired U.S. Army officer, was the U.S. defense attache in Oslo in 1979-1982.

)2003 San Francisco Chronicle