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How Europe gets Bush wrong


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History may be their influence, but European Bush-bashers should look past their assumptions

"Why do they hate you, Mr. President?" asked Nick Robinson, the political editor of Britain's ITV News, at a press conference in London last week. "I don't know that they do," the President replied. But I fear he's too optimistic. There is something about Bush that just gets under the skin of Europeans.

But why? Start with the obvious: the dislike of Bush is the repayment, with interest, of an old slight. Bush and his closest advisers were dismissive of Europe from the start. After spats over global warming and the International Criminal Court, the Administration rebuffed NATO members who pledged their support to the U.S. following Sept. 11, 2001.

Other slurs followed, like Bush's sneer at the American reporter who dared ask the French President a question in French. None of that made Bush loved. Now many Europeans simply doubt that his commitment to democracy in the Middle East is genuine and cannot fathom why the U.S. does not lean harder on Israel to secure a lasting peace.

I suspect, however, that there are more fundamental factors at work. Bush reminds Europeans of the dark angels of their past. He is a conviction politician, a man who knows what he thinks and couldn't care two hoots for what he doesn't know. But after its blood-drenched flirtation with fascism and communism, Europe distrusts such certainty. Remember: Margaret Thatcher, another conviction politician, was hated—really, truly hated—by half of Britain.

Bush is religiously devout, and that too calls up troubling spirits from Europe's vasty deep. Not all Europeans are godless heathens nor all Americans washed in the blood of the Lamb. But in European memory, religious fervor has often been a source of bitter communal strife—think of Ireland and the Balkans.

Bush is prepared to use force to advance his political goals. But after the carnage of what might be called the long European war from 1914 to 1989, some Europeans—particularly older ones, in my experience—just cannot accept the idea that any war can be a good one.

Europe these days is a curiously inward-looking place. Its political class is preoccupied with the time-consuming process of building the European Union. Young Europeans, meanwhile, are enjoying the borderless, happy and comfortable world that is their own continent. I couldn't prove it, but I suspect that Europeans are both less interested in and less knowledgeable about the U.S. than they were 20 years ago.

They increasingly form their views of the U.S. from the sort of European journalism that stresses American weirdness, as if every American were a Botoxed, snake-handling cowboy Holy Roller, and that has produced what Nick Robinson calls a "grotesque caricature" of Bush in Europe.

Fair-minded Europeans who read Bush's speech in London last week will surely adjust their image of him. I was particularly struck by this passage: "Because European countries now resolve differences through negotiation and consensus, there's sometimes an assumption that the entire world functions in the same way.

But let us never forget ... beyond Europe's borders, in a world where oppression and violence are very real, liberation is still a moral goal, and freedom and security still need defenders." Every word of that is true. If Europeans continue to hate the man who said them, they diminish not him, but themselves.

Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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