Ayatollah Bush

The cajoling (over Iraq, of course) and the 60-year-old commemorative ceremonies are now over, and President Bush and entourage have caught Air Force One back to the States. He leaves behind, among many other things, an excellent article in the current issue of the authoritative German commentary-newspaper, Die Zeit, which his staff, at least, would have been well-advised to have studied in preparation for this visit (the article is dated June 3). Now, I know that the President doesn’t care much for foreign languages, and maybe that attitude also percolates down to those who work for him, so that that probably did not happen. But that’s OK anyway, because Jan Ross’ piece Bush and Us can also serve just as well as a post-visit dissection of the true attitudes towards George W. Bush and America in general among Europeans, beneath all the World War II-gratitude veneer.

JUST A BAD BUSH DREAM?

Ross’ analysis does get very sophisticated – to give you an early taste, he posits that Europeans might very well (cynically) prefer Bush to Kerry, were they able to vote in November’s presidential election – although the first part of his article is blunt enough: Europeans dislike Bush intensely. It’s not only the French – and of course it’s the French – but it’s the Germans, too. What’s more, all the speculation that it’s all merely anti-Bush, not really anti-America (NYT registration required), in Ross’s view, can be tossed to one side: France, Germany, what we’re talking about here is anti-Americanism, and in Germany’s case especially, an end to that country’s traditional Cold War role as the United States’ Musterschülerin, or “model student,” always sure in the end, despite any temporary disagreements, to come back to the Master’s side. Anti-Americanism is swelling in the UK, too: for Tony Blair, Ross writes, George W. Bush has become “a stone around the neck.” And in Spain – we saw what happened to Bush’s good friend José Maria Aznar. And in Italy – Berlusconi also lives now in fear of the voters’ punishment. And in Central Europe, although here Ross’ argument gets somewhat cloudy, as he seems to make the case that Poland, etc. are only continuing to keep in step with the Bush administration out of gratitude towards past Republican presidents, e.g. the just-deceased Ronald Reagan, but also George Bush senior.

The overall trend is such that Ross is prompted to start out his article with “Was it all just a spook?” i.e. Have these three-plus years just been some sort of bad dream? Maybe this Bush fellow will be sent packing after all come November, ultimately making his four-year term and all the damage he managed to cause during it – Ross lists “rejectionism in the Middle East, anti-Americanism everywhere, strained if not ruined alliances” – just a “footnote to history,” all of which hopefully can be repaired in time.

MIDDLE EAST: NO TURNING BACK

Unfortunately, it can’t turn out as simply as that, even if Bush loses his quest for re-election (or first-time election, as those mindful of the 2000 election’s popular vote results remind us). A return to the George W. Bush-less status quo is simply not possible, because of the way this administration truly has changed the world, most especially the Middle East. All that is remembered these days of that brief period in April-May 2003 when America stood triumphant above a supine Iraq is President Bush on that aircraft carrier, in a flightsuit and with the “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging behind him. What is forgotten is that the American President was actually taken seriously then in Europe, even at an intellectual level (especially by the European Left, ironically, claims Ross). This was not because of the just-completed feat of American/British arms but because of his radical idea (that he seemed to be making a reality) that democracy could actually be brought to the Middle East, that one no longer had to be satisfied with what Ross terms “the Brezhnev’s of the Arab World” but could insist on political change there, on the introduction of “freedom,” of one sort or another.

Nowadays, of course, such prospects have dimmed, especially for Iraq, and George W. Bush is back to not being taken seriously, at all, in Europe. But the idea of change in the Middle East will not go away (among other reasons, because of the pressure Saudi Arabia is now coming under from terrorist attacks); the pre-Bush (junior) status quo is out of reach, things are going to happen, “business as usual with potentates such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is hardly imaginable,” writes Ross, meaning that whoever the next President of the United States turns out to be, he will have a lot to deal with on his foreign policy plate.

What if that turns out to be John Kerry after all? Using intricate, even cynical reasoning, Ross makes the case that that could be an even worse case for the Europeans than the (re-)election of Bush. For Kerry has promised a return to “multilateralism” in his foreign policy, if elected, meaning offering America’s allies consultation, a say in things – in return for their engagement and assistance. But what if they don’t want to be engaged? As Ross points out, “It’s easy to say ‘no’ to Bush; whoever refuses to get involved in his ‘adventures’ is in good standing.” A reasonable John Kerry would be much harder to say “no” to – which is not to say that America’s “allies” might not do it anyway, which in turn means what Ross calls the “cowboy faction” in Washington saying “We told you so; we have to go it alone” and then basically the end of the Atlantic Alliance.

IRRECONCILABLE TRANS-ATLANTIC DIFFERENCES

“Wait,” you ask, “why would Europe want to say ‘no’ even to John Kerry?” This is Jan Ross’ main point: because Europe has diverged fundamentally from the United States. If this divergence was not itself a product of the attacks of September 11, 2001, then at least that disaster accelerated this process along. For what really offends Europeans about George W. Bush is his piety (Frömmigkeit), his moral clarity, his Good-and-Evil frame of mind. But this ultimately is nothing more than a reflection of post-September 11 America, convinced that the world changed fundamentally on that date and plunged it into an absolute, right-against-wrong struggle against a new enemy that recalls the struggles that were the Cold War and World War II. Bush is a new sort of fundamentalist, but in the same way so is America, so that it ultimately will not matter whether Bush is President or Kerry. And Europe, the secularized continent par excellence, wants none of that, none of the titanic conflicts between competing world-views that it had quite enough of during the 20th century. “There is nothing else that Europe has so fundamentally had enough of,” Ross writes, “as claims to know absolute Truth.”

In a way it is appropriate that this past weekend saw such solemn ceremonies in remembrance of World War II (at Rome, at Normandy), involving heads-of-state and -government from all over Europe as well as both sides of the Atlantic, to commemorate the era, sixty years ago, when everyone was in fact on the same page when it came to what they were fighting against and fighting for. For, under those ceremonies’ comradely façade lay hidden, on the one side, a present-day European mentality that scoffs at the analogy Bush administration officials try to make between Nazi Germany and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – and, on the other, an American mentality that sincerely believes in that. The particularly repellent figure George W. Bush strikes for European sensibilities may, ironically, delay the definitive surfacing of these fundamental intellectual differences. (For instance, the Bush administration at the upcoming NATO summit in Istanbul will want to get NATO involvement in Iraq, which will likely be refused with the excuse that the Bush administration hasn’t had a need for NATO in Iraq for a long time, so why does it need NATO now?) But it surely cannot do so for very much longer.

Update: Then I discover, on the Die Zeit website at the same time, this piece, entitled “Gulliver’s Landing” by none other than Josef Joffe, one of Die Zeit’s editors-in-chief. The “Gulliver” in the title comes from Dr. Joffe’s contention that, once released from its Cold War diplomatic obligations (and indeed from competition from any other superpower) by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States could and did act as an unleashed Gulliver, a geopolitical power among midgets, while its still-nominal European allies scrambled to tie the giant down again with an insistence on “multilateralism,” i.e. submission to international treaties and organizations: the UN, the International Criminal Court at The Hague, the Kyoto Climate Protocol. It should be no surprise that the American giant has been loathe to accept this under the Bush administration, even as it was also under Clinton – although Joffe admits that Bush could have done more to head off the “unprecedented wave of rage and contempt [now] spilling up against America.” In the end, he concludes, Europe and America still need each other and so will stick together – although he is specifically pessimistic about the relevance of NATO, ever since the enemy it was created to face down disappeared in 1991, and continuing through to today.

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