Bush Is a Lame Duck. Bush-Bashing in Europe Is, Too.
W hen President Bush came to Britain on a state visit in November 2003, more than 100,000 people turned out to protest against him -- the largest ever weekday rally in London. But when the president comes to town this week, we'll be talking closer to 100 protesters than 100,000. Newspapers won't be running multiple pages of open letters to Bush from the great and the good. The television schedules will go undisturbed.
It will probably be the same on the other stops of what could be Bush's last European tour as president. He will, of course, receive a warm reception in the chancelleries and palaces of Europe: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are all firm believers in the Atlantic alliance. But this shouldn't be seen as evidence that Europe has finally reconciled itself to the man. Nor should the absence of large-scale anti-Bush rallies be taken as a sign of approval. All this shows is that Bush-hatred, like the president himself, has become a lame duck.
The gigantic protests that used to accompany Bush's visits to Europe were a backhanded compliment -- the tribute that impotent rage pays to power. Their sheer scale testified to his status as the most powerful man on Earth. Their likely absence this week will suggest that this aura is fading fast. Bush might reflect that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the one thing worse than being protested against is not being protested against.
Brown's two visits to the United States since taking over from Tony Blair a year ago are indicative of Bush's rapidly declining relevance in the European public's mind. When Brown paid his first visit last July, he was so keen to demonstrate that he was not "Bush's poodle" (as Blair was unkindly and unfairly dubbed) that he kept his suit on despite the heat and the relaxed atmosphere at Camp David. He was determined to show that the trip was all work and no play. He even publicly stated that "We have had full and frank discussions" -- not-so-subtle code for a bloody great row -- to ram home the point to the British public.
But when Brown returned to Washington this April, he stood next to Bush and declared that the "world owes President George Bush a huge debt of gratitude for leading the world in our determination to root out terrorism." There was no outcry back home. Here in Britain, our real interest was in Brown's meetings at the British Embassy with Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. These got front-page treatment and analysis from that British media favorite, the "body language expert."
The primaries -- especially the historic, extended Democratic contest, which British news outlets covered exhaustively -- are not the sole reason the fire has gone out of European Bush-hatred. One of the main sparks fueling it was a deep frustration that Americans couldn't see what many Europeans considered obvious: that Bush is a moron. (Bush might have reciprocated by wondering what the mot juste was for people who consider Michael Moore an intellectual lodestar.) Some Europeans thought that if they turned out in large enough numbers, the Yanks would finally "get it"; others just wanted an excuse to scream and shout. But now that two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the job Bush is doing, that particular irritation has waned.
Another equally important factor is that U.S. foreign policy has been far less radical during Bush's second term. No countries have been invaded, and the administration has spent much more time trying to work through international institutions. Depressingly, good news from Iraq is taken as bad news by some rabid European anti-Americans, people who take a certain satisfaction from the difficulties the United States has encountered there, in hopes that they will teach the "ignorant Americans" a lesson. The European media have largely lost interest in Iraq since the U.S. military "surge" started showing such striking results.
Ironically, the widely loathed Bush will actually leave his successor a good legacy when it comes to Europe. The next president will receive a significant boost from simply not being Bush. The departing president will be the scapegoat, carrying away America's sins in Europe's eyes in much the same way that the exit of the reliably prickly Jacques Chirac helped redeem France in Washington's view. Chirac's departure paved the way for the pro-American Sarkozy to seduce Washington even faster than he did Carla Bruni. The next U.S. president will not even have to make the first call to European suitors. Before he is inaugurated, the presidents, chancellors and prime ministers of Europe will be asking for a date. Being the first to be photographed with the 44th president would be both a diplomatic and political coup for all these leaders. We got a flavor of the competition to come when McCain came to London in March, and Brown and Conservative Party leader David Cameron were desperately eager to one-up each other in their photo-ops with the presumptive Republican nominee.
The new president will also have the opportunity for a lot of "quick wins" with Europe. Both McCain and Obama would probably close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, ban torture and accept the need for concerted international action against global warming. Under this cover, many Europeans will slide back into the pro-American fold. And if Obama is the next president, he'll flip all the soft anti-Americans in Europe.
Bush might have had a particularly rough time on the European front -- he was dubbed the "Toxic Texan" from day one -- but he is far from the first U.S. president to be on the receiving end of this kind of abuse. Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all had a taste of it. Despite this, it is easy to imagine the 44th president having a prolonged European honeymoon.