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Bush, the bad guy

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 28, 2003; 12:00 AM

DAVOS, Switzerland -- -- Each year the meeting of the World Economic Forum here has a theme -- maybe something about globalization, or the dot-com revolution that came and went and is still going. This year the official theme is restoring trust, but unofficially it's something else entirely. Call it bashing America.

In all my years of coming here I have never seen anything like it. You would think that George Bush, not Saddam Hussein, had twice invaded his neighbors, ruled his own country despotically and used poison gas on his own people. But Hussein -- while concededly a piece of dirt -- is getting off easy compared with Bush. The American president, quite simply as well as quite simplistically, is seen as a cowboy intent on shooting up the whole damn town. What's a poor European to do?

From listening to some of what was said here, you would think that Bush has revoked most of the constitutional protections that we call civil liberties. You would think further that the president is hellbent on going to war in Iraq -- not because Hussein is a menace but because he tried to kill the elder George Bush or on account of oil.

Much of the criticism is maddening, but, to a degree, the Bush administration brought it on itself by initially acting unilaterally. It too casually denounced the Kyoto environmental protocol and the International Criminal Court. When certain allies volunteered to do some of the fighting in Afghanistan, they were rebuffed. We'll handle this ourselves, the Bush administration said -- and it did. Little wonder, then, that Bush earned a reputation for unilateralism.

In all likelihood, a war against Iraq was going to draw opposition. In the first place, the United States is not going to war in self-defense. Iraq doesn't really threaten America or, for that matter, Europe. Second, Europeans find Bush jarring. He speaks too bluntly. He seems to exude smugness. He is no one's idea of eloquent, and some of his key aides -- Donald Rumsfeld, for instance -- are wont to say things that make for terrific sound bites but amount to awful diplomacy. Consigning Germany and France to something called the "old Europe" was a blunt brushoff. He might as well have dressed them in "Student Prince" costumes.

Then, too, Bush has a hard case to make. He is out to prove that Iraq cannot account for the weapons of mass destruction it once had. The evidence that Iraq is cheating is that it has provided no evidence that it is not. This is something like proving a negative -- a bit harder than merely producing satellite shots of missile installations or secret weapons facilities.

But if Bush has his shortcomings, so do his European critics. They know damn well the menace that Hussein poses: Why else did they vote to send in the U.N. inspectors? But rather than back Bush at this critical moment, they give vent to their resentment of American power and carp from the sidelines. They insist, for reasons that emit a whiff of anti-Semitism, that the Arab-Israeli muddle must be settled first -- although how that will happen quickly after all these years no one seems to know.

After a while, the appropriate and sound criticism of Bush and his policies starts to fall on deaf ears. It gets drowned out in a cacophony of emotional anti-Americanism or even more emotional anti-Israelism. Every once in a while these European critics have to be reminded, as they were by Colin Powell in his speech here, that America saved Europe from the Nazis and from the Communists and asked nothing in return. Our troops came and went, leaving behind little more than Hershey bar wrappers.

If it is true that the Bush administration's rhetoric is sometimes excessive, if it is true that it has sometimes made false claims (linking Saddam Hussein with the Sept. 11 terrorists, for instance), then it is also true that much of the European criticism is excessive and just as disingenuous. European leaders know the danger posed by Hussein, but they act as if that danger will somehow be diminished by time alone. They do little to educate their own people about the harsh realities of the situation.

Several times in sessions here or when Powell spoke to the entire conference, someone would say something in defense of America -- its values, its history. That would usually provoke applause, and when I looked around it seemed to me that it was the Americans clapping -- me included. This is not a good thing. If we are going to fight Hussein, first we have to stop fighting among ourselves.


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