No more Lone Ranger

European leaders like the internationalist Bush who has emerged from last week's terror attacks.

Published September 18, 2001 11:33PM (EDT)

Up until last week, President Bush had been almost flamboyant about alienating U.S. allies around the world, especially in Europe. Now suddenly the former Texas governor is a committed multilateralist, trying to learn to play the role of global good citizen, mending fences with a sense of purpose sadly lacking in U.S. diplomacy in recent months.

Is it for real? Will it last? Impossible to say, of course. But it's not too early to welcome the rejection of the go-it-alone foreign policy of Bush's first nine months in office. Bush has in recent days opened the door to the rest of the world, diplomatically and in some sense personally, and there seems no going back to the days when he seemed eager to tune out everyone but Mexico and Russia.

Last week was a confirmation, if the Bush administration really needed one, that the problems festering in foreign countries really matter. Now top officials have set about lining up foreign leaders behind the effort to fight the terrorism sponsored by Osama bin Laden and his allies, in a way that previously seemed unthinkable under this president.

Of course, he's belatedly learning lessons his father always knew. Speaking Thursday in Boston, the former President Bush said Tuesday's terrorist attacks should "erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism -- or in anything else for that matter." Yet that was precisely what the second Bush administration was doing. So much for those stories about how the elder Bush was advising his son on foreign policy. If so, he wasn't listening -- until now.

And European leaders have repaid the new attention. Last week NATO invoked treaty language declaring the attack on the United States an attack on all of NATO for the first time in its history. Keeping the fractious Europeans in line won't be easy. But the indications are that Britain, France, Spain, Italy and possibly even Germany -- a country that went half a century with no military actions -- are prepared to offer military support to Bush's war on terrorism.

Although the American media has repeatedly questioned how solid Bush's European support really is, most of the cracks that appeared to open up in the alliance have quickly been repaired. Much was made, for instance, of German President Johannes Rau saying it was "his impression" that German troops would not be called for in the expected military campaign. London's Guardian characterized this as Rau having "ruled out" German military involvement. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose position matters most, nixed that, insisting, "I cannot and do not want to rule out" German military involvement.

Likewise, Italian defense minister Antonio Martino was quoted Sunday denying that Italian troops would take part in any U.S. military action. But Tuesday he told the BBC he'd been misquoted, and that assuming U.S. intelligence continues to indicate the involvement of bin Laden, Italy will honor its military commitment.

Certainly many Europeans are a little uncomfortable with Bush's "war" rhetoric, which Sunday he ratcheted up to the level of "crusade." And the reality is, until the allies have a better idea what Bush plans, they don't know how involved they are prepared to be. Some NATO allies, like Spain, are more ready to get involved militarily than others. There are likely to be fascinating subplots. Britain's Tony Blair has been an articulate champion of America in recent days, as has Germany's Schroeder. But both hope to exert influence on Bush and urge him to moderate U.S. military retaliation. Blair and Schroeder will meet face to face on Wednesday for talks, and on Friday they will join other E.U. leaders in Brussels for an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.

Elsewhere, the diplomatic tangles are no less intricate. The Bush administration had tilted toward India, of late, against its fierce rival Pakistan. Now, of course, Bush needs Pakistan as a potential staging area for an offensive against Afghanistan, so the U.S. is said to be offering debt forgiveness, some easing on sanctions and possibly even some support in Pakistan's conflict with India over the Kashmir region .

Likewise, China became America's New Enemy after intercepting an American spy plane last March, in the first mini-test of the Bush administration. But the world has changed. China has its own problems with Islamic fundamentalists it believes are encouraged by Osama bin Laden; it is unlikely to oppose U.S.-led military action against the Saudi exile, though it is unlikely to become a partner in the effort.

The Bush team has also reached out to Iran, and is already seeing those efforts pay off. President Mohammad Khatami was quick to denounce the terrorist attacks last week. "No Muslim can be pleased about such a human catastrophe," he said. Iran has self-interest in mind, since it opposes the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and supports the Northern Alliance waging civil war against it. But given the deep hatred expressed for so many years in references to the United States as "the Great Satan," the early signs of rapprochement are striking.

As promising as these early diplomatic efforts have been, it's worth noting that the war on terrorism could flame out. Military obstacles are enormous. The famously rough terrain of Afghanistan was enough to defeat the Soviet army, after all, and digging terrorists out of the mountains could take years. Short-term military involvement from the allies may matter less than durable political support.

What's clear is that Bush finally understands he needs the rest of the world in a way he never did before, a major departure from his first nine months in office.. Bush did not try to ignore the rest of the world just because he was uncomfortable with foreign policy, which was clearly not his strength, or because he and his advisors worried he would mangle names. Those were factors, but more important was his desire to define the new Republican administration, across the board, as the opposite of the Clinton administration.

"Under George W. Bush, a fundamental change has already taken place in American foreign policy: The foreign world is again, well, foreign," wrote Fouad Ajami approvingly in the New Republic last June. "Gone is the Clintonian emotional expansiveness that took in friend and foe alike, displaying a false identification with places near and far. That neurosis about acceptance, that compulsive need for seduction, drove Bill Clinton and took him everywhere Air Force One could land. There is nothing of this in Bush."

This push toward disengagement -- intellectual, political, moral -- with the rest of the world, we now all know, was dangerously misguided. The world really is more connected than ever, which is why literally billions of people outside the United States have been so deeply affected by the horrors of last week.

The 200,000 Berliners who gathered near the Brandenburg Gate last Friday to pay their respects to America and American values, for example, hummed "Amazing Grace" with palpable emotion and shed tears that were just as real as tears shed anywhere else over this tragedy. Again and again, around the world, people in foreign countries have repeated the message that this was an attack on them, too. Through television and the Internet and cellphones, we really are more connected than ever. This was Clinton's message, and it turns out to be more than just rhetoric. That is why it's crucial for Bush to accept the responsibility that comes with world leadership, and to cultivate foreign leaders not just at photo ops, but through real exchanges of ideas and sensibilities.

Of course, there was manipulation in Clinton's style, as well as an undercurrent of desperation in his attempts, late in his administration, to score a foreign policy triumph that might create a legacy more lasting than impeachment. And it's easy to mock Clinton and his big, sloppy empathy. But historical and technological currents really were carrying the U.S. to a new kind of engagement with the rest of the world, one that Clinton was uniquely prepared to recognize. Plus, the man could listen, a trait allies appreciated.

That's what Bush needs to begin to do. The president's relationship with the rest of the world will be fostered by the apparent ascension of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who never backed the administration's go-it-alone posture, and who is respected by foreign leaders. Powell's up and down fortunes have risen during the current crisis, and that's good news for the rest of the world.

The rest of the world is looking for calm, sober leadership. No president could help being pumped up, as Bush was, by arriving at the bombing site and hearing that crowd of rescue workers chanting U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A. But allies are looking for acknowledgment that the U.S. will consider the world's interests when striking back against bin Laden. Bush will need to listen, really listen, to what his friends in Europe are saying. Talk of mounting a "crusade," for instance, against Islamic fundamentalists we condemn for crusading is not the way to keep the Europeans in the fold.

European allies will be urging Bush to stay focused on the goal of retaliation, as opposed to revenge. One can be achieved. The other never can, as it spawns an unending cycle of violence. It may be too much to ask that Bush pause, even with American public opinion strongly behind him, to listen to advice from the European allies. But stranger things have happened, just in the last week.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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