To appreciate fully the unparalleled political and moral courage of Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar and the other six European leaders who called for solidarity with the United States in a statement published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, you really have to live in Europe and feel the mood out here. Never mind that Blair, Aznar, Silvio Berlusconi, et al. planted themselves at the side of President Bush in the coming confrontation with Iraq -- at a time when polls in Britain, Spain, Italy and elsewhere around Europe show opposition to American policy running at 70 percent or higher. And never mind that they insisted America's war on terrorism must be Europe's war, too -- at a time when, as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana recently conceded, most Europeans do not feel the slightest bit threatened by international terrorism and, indeed, fear Bush more than they fear Osama bin Laden.
This was nothing compared with the unabashed pro-Americanism of their declaration. The eight European leaders actually wrote of "American bravery, generosity and farsightedness" in setting Europe free from Nazism and communism in the last century and in keeping the peace in Europe for the past six decades. By using the word "generosity," they even implied that Europeans might now owe the United States a little generosity in return.
Such sentiments are pure heresy these days in Europe, where anti-Americanism has reached a fevered intensity. I live in Brussels, famed "capital of Europe," and have traveled across the continent over the past year, speaking with intellectuals, journalists, foreign policy analysts and government officials at the endless merry-go-round of highbrow European conferences. The settings couldn't be nicer; the food and wine couldn't be better; the conversations couldn't be more polite. And the suspicion, fear and loathing of the United States couldn't be thicker. In London, where Tony Blair has to go to work every day, one finds Britain's finest minds propounding, in sophisticated language and melodious Oxbridge accents, the conspiracy theories of Pat Buchanan concerning the "neoconservative" (read: Jewish) hijacking of American foreign policy. Britain's most gifted scholars sift through American writings about Europe searching for signs of derogatory "sexual imagery." In Paris, all the talk is of oil and "imperialism" (and Jews). In Madrid, it's oil, imperialism, past American support for Franco (and Jews). At a conference I recently attended in Barcelona, an esteemed Spanish intellectual earnestly asked why, if the United States wants to topple vicious dictatorships that manufacture weapons of mass destruction, it is not also invading Israel.
Yes, I know, there are Americans who ask such questions, too. We have our Buchanans and our Gore Vidals. But here's what Americans need to understand: In Europe, this paranoid, conspiratorial anti-Americanism is not a far-left or far-right phenomenon. It's the mainstream view. When Gerhard Schroeder campaigns on an anti-American platform in Germany, he's not just "mobilizing his base" or reaching out to fringe Greens and Socialists. He's talking to the man and woman on the street, left, right and center. When Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin publicly humiliate Colin Powell, they're playing to the gallery. The "European street" is more anti-American than ever before. Even in the 1960s at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests or in the early 1980s at the height of the "nuclear freeze" movement, European anti-Americanism was always more than counterbalanced by European anti-communism. Most Europeans believed the real problem was the Red Army and Soviet totalitarianism, not Nixon or Reagan, and the United States, whatever its flaws, was defending them from those twin evils. When Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher and even Francois Mitterrand stood with Reagan in the waning years of the Cold War, theirs was a courageous and vitally important but not a politically risky stand.
Not so today for Messrs. Blair, Aznar and Berlusconi or for Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister. For leaders in Western Europe, more so than for their Central and Eastern European colleagues, standing with Bush in the present Iraq crisis is political poison, at least in the short run. With the Soviet and communist threats safely behind them and the Balkan crises settled, most Western Europeans either don't remember, don't choose to remember or perhaps even resent America's long record of strategic "generosity" toward them. Certainly they do not feel a scintilla of generosity toward the United States. Instead, as keen observers such as Christopher Caldwell have noted, anti-Americanism has become the organizing theme for all European grievances about their world. And just as Arab leaders channel domestic unhappiness with their rule into anti-Americanism as a kind of safety valve for discontent, so, in perhaps more subtle ways, do European leaders. Schroeder surely hopes his impoverished constituents in the former East Germany can be encouraged to vent their anger at Bush and not at their own chancellor. French anxieties about France's growing Muslim population are channeled into hostility toward Israel and the Bush administration's Middle East policies.
History offers few examples of democratic political leaders willing to sail head-on into such gale-force winds. That is why Blair and his colleagues deserve so much admiration, even more than Thatcher and hers. While Chirac and Schroeder simultaneously feed and feed on anti-Americanism, Blair, Aznar and their colleagues have taken the much harder and much lonelier road. Appealing to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature," they ask Europeans to rise above pettiness and insecurity. In the long run, political courage may have a political payoff. In a few months, Blair and his colleagues may come out of this stronger for having the guts to take an unpopular stand now. Let's just pray they survive the effort.
The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order."