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Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2002 / 27 Elul, 5762

Bill Schneider

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Bush's European problem | LONDON The chattering class here in London recently when, according to The Guardian, "It is understood'' that polling commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair confirms President Bush's "spectacular unpopularity among British voters.'' Alas, the newspaper continued, "the dramatic findings . . . have been kept within a tight circle of officials . . . who refuse to divulge any details.''

That's because there were none. Peter Mandelson, Labour Member of Parliament and one of Blair's closest advisers, said firmly, "There is no British government poll or Labour Party poll that provides any such finding.''

So where did the story come from? Gossip. And leaks, based on casual observation, not scientific evidence. How did the story get into a reputable newspaper? "It's August!'' Mandelson said. And something else. "President Bush has come in for criticism, mockery -- condescension, actually -- from media commentators here in the U.K.''

Jonathan Freedland, political columnist for The Guardian, put it this way: "It's a kind of snobbery, which is a very unattractive side of Europeans. They think, `This guy doesn't sound smart. He sounds like the worst Hollywood cliche of the gun-slinging cowboy.' We find it hard to respect that.''

Disdain for President Bush has filtered down to public opinion, not just in Britain, but across Europe. "On the average, only one in five Europeans approves of the way Bush is doing his job,'' pollster Jessica Elgood of London's Market & Opinion Research International said. "That is extremely low for an American President. Far lower than his predecessor Bill Clinton, who reached peaks of 65 percent.''

In other words, the Blair "poll'' may have been unfounded. But it was not inaccurate.

Partly it's a matter of style. Bill Clinton had charm. So did Ronald Reagan. And George W. Bush? Freedland offered this comparison: "When President Clinton traveled, you got the sense he knew what buttons to press, no matter if he was in London, Prague or Paris. He just had an emollient, smooth way of talking. George W. Bush often seems abrasive. He sounds aggressive. His manner and body language make it look like he's in a hurry, like he'd rather not be there.''

So Europeans are suckers for charm. Is that it? Not entirely. Europeans will give you a long list of issues where President Bush has gone his own way. Global warming. The international criminal court. Missile defense. The Middle East peace process.

The basic problem is that Bush has trouble speaking to the rest of the world with an international language. President Clinton didn't. "The way Clinton couched his actions,'' Mandelson said, "it always seemed to be for the benefit of the whole international community. Bush's language doesn't emphasize that as much. It's more about American needs, American interests, American opinions.''

Which is exactly what Europeans told the Pew Research Center last April. In overwhelming numbers, French, British, Italian and German respondents said they believed President Bush's decisions are based entirely on U.S. interests -- and do not take European interests into account. That sentiment was endorsed by a margin averaging 76 to 18 percent in the four countries.

The big fear across Europe right now is Iraq. Europeans say the U.S. has not made the case for "regime change.'' Europeans, in Freedland's view, "want to see the evidence that somehow Saddam Hussein poses a new, clear and present danger. They think it's the old danger reheated to justify a new war.''

This month, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opened his re-election campaign by rejecting what he called American "adventures'' in Iraq. Public opposition is also building in Britain. Last fall, according to a Guardian/ICM poll, the British were solidly behind U.S. action in Afghanistan (74 percent). But this year, there is far less support for a U.S. strike on Iraq (35 percent).

All of which puts enormous pressure on Tony Blair. "If he aligns himself too closely with an unpopular U.S. President undertaking an unpopular foreign policy initiative, it could be very damaging for him domestically,'' Elgood said. Columnist Martin Kettle was more ominous. "If Blair gets this wrong, he could be gone by Christmas,'' Kettle wrote in the August 8 Guardian.

An incipient revolt is already brewing in the Labour Party. Robin Cook, Blair's former foreign secretary, is emerging as the leading Cabinet critic of British involvement in any American-led action to topple Saddam Hussein. The London Times reports that Blair has been given "a private warning of a massive Labour rebellion'' if Iraq comes to a vote in the House of Commons. The prime minister is already preparing to face a revolt over Iraq at the annual Labour Party conference this fall.

Mandelson warns, "If President Bush's military options are not accompanied by a political strategy to prepare public opinion, then I think we will see our governments lined up but with public opinion straggling way behind.'' Blair's former Cabinet minister added, "That will create a danger, because when you are mounting an operation of that kind, you need your public with you and fully committed to what you are doing.''

Governments together, publics apart. That's the problem. And it's bigger than Iraq. "Fifty-three percent of the British public now see Europe as out closest ally. Only one third see the United States as our closest ally,'' Elgood reported, adding, "Clearly that shows a shift in British opinion. Twenty years ago, it was just the opposite.''

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© 2002, William Schneider