The ugly American

When Bush arrives in Rome for the start of a series of meetings with European leaders, it won't exactly be la dolce vita.

Published June 2, 2004 8:05PM (EDT)

President Bush heads to Europe this week, the beginning of a monthlong diplomatic whirlwind. He starts with a visit to Rome to see the pope and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, heads to France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, returns to Sea Island, Ga., for the G-8 summit of major industrialized nations and then goes back to Europe for summits with the European Union in Ireland and with NATO in Turkey.

Ordinarily, a first-term incumbent in the homestretch of his bid for reelection would relish a month of high-profile summitry. Americans like their president to be presidential, and globe-trotting on Air Force One usually fits the bill.

But these events will be anything but an opportunity for Bush to revel in diplomatic achievements. The gathering in Normandy is meant to celebrate America's strategic bond with Europe, but holding a eulogy for the Atlantic alliance would be more fitting. The leaders of the G-8 nations will no doubt maintain a facade of unity and declare their shared commitment to bringing about political reform in the Middle East, but only by skirting around the immediate crises in Iraq and in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. At both the E.U. and NATO summits, Bush will be greeted by leaders and publics alike that are deeply skeptical and resentful of Washington's bravado and bluster.

Europe today is home to a rising tide of angry anti-American sentiment. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center indicates that almost two-thirds of the public in France and Germany hold an "unfavorable" opinion of the United States. America's standing in the world has plummeted under Bush's watch, and the Atlantic alliance has been stretched to the breaking point.

Although the Iraq war is the most prominent cause, the story starts well before the fall of Baghdad and the chaotic occupation that followed it. The Atlantic alliance was born amid the bloodshed of World War II, when the world's democracies joined arms to defeat Nazism and fascism. It held fast during the long years of the Cold War, successfully containing the Soviet Union until the communist bloc collapsed of its own accord. On this side of the Atlantic, the task of caring for the West fell to a bipartisan coalition of centrist Republicans and Democrats, cobbled together by FDR during the war. The progressive internationalism that resulted brought a commitment to multilateralism and compromise that legitimized U.S. power through the second half of the 20th century.

The Atlantic alliance first began to weaken after the Cold War, a victim of its own success in ending Europe's geopolitical division. Absent a common threat, Europe became less willing to follow America's lead. And with Europe's major powers at peace, U.S. priorities shifted to Asia and the Middle East. The cracks in the alliance became clear amid its lethargic and tortured efforts to bring peace to the Balkans during the 1990s.

But now, the United States and Europe are not just lapsed partners; they have become open rivals. Some of America's harshest critics are its traditional democratic allies in Europe. In turn, Washington has lost its enthusiasm for European unity, now resisting what has been a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. How did it come to this? How could decades of partnership so readily give way to estrangement?

The main source of the friction is the Bush administration's lasting embrace of a unilateralist approach, which has cost America its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Unchecked by the moderating influence of institutions and allies, a reassuring restraint in American leadership has given way to an alienating excess.

The bipartisan coalition that for decades underwrote liberal internationalism started to come undone well before Bush took office. Although President Clinton was a committed multilateralist, Republican control of Congress and domestic politics thwarted a series of international pacts that Clinton supported.

The unilateralism intensified dramatically as soon as Bush occupied the White House. The Republican Party's internationalist wing -- the likes of Henry Kissinger, the elder Bush and his former national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft -- still wields influence, but no longer power. Soon after taking office, Bush reveled in his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Although America and Europe were on a collision course before al-Qaida's attacks on New York and Washington, the angry vulnerability bred by 9/11 made matters much worse. Bush might have capitalized on the outpouring of sympathy in Europe. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked its collective defense clause, with America's European allies ready to participate in the war in Afghanistan. "Thanks, but no thanks" was the response from Washington.

The resulting pique in Europe only mounted as the Bush administration, satisfied -- erroneously -- that it had dealt a debilitating blow to the Taliban and al-Qaida, set its sights on Saddam Hussein. Led by France and Germany, the antiwar coalition in Europe contended that an invasion of Iraq would set back, not advance, the fight against terrorism and that it would flame rather than tame Islamic fervor across the Middle East. Although a few European governments -- the British, Spanish, Italian and Polish most prominent among them -- backed Bush's decision to invade Iraq, public opinion, even in the countries that supported the U.S., was decidedly opposed to the war.

Since the fall of Hussein, Europe's pro-war coalition has markedly weakened for a number of reasons. First, Washington's main justifications for the war quickly evaporated, and, instead, the region is in turmoil and al-Qaida recruitment has jumped. Second, the current violence and chaos in Iraq look much more like occupation than liberation. Finally, the prisoner abuse scandal has provoked outrage across Europe, drying up what little sympathy remained.

Thus far, Spain, deeply shaken by the Madrid bombings, is the only major member of the military coalition in Iraq to head for the exits. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair is fighting for his political life as a result of his relationship with Bush and his support for the war. And Italy's center-left opposition is now calling for the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq, making Berlusconi's government increasingly unstable.

Poland's prime minister, a supporter of the war, has already stepped down, and President Alexander Kwasniewski is at pains to demonstrate the war's benefits to his electorate. Polish troops are dying in Iraq, Polish firms have yet to receive major reconstruction contracts and Bush has repeatedly rebuffed Kwasniewski's requests that Washington grant Polish tourists visa-free access to the United States.

Bush will arrive in Rome on Friday hoping to resuscitate the Atlantic alliance and get more European help in Iraq -- worthy objectives whose accomplishment would certainly shore up his bid for reelection in November. But he will have no such luck. Instead, he will find a Europe that has no intention whatsoever of bailing him out of the quagmire in Iraq.

At least as troubling, the president will find a Europe that has grown not just anti-Bush, but decidedly anti-American. During a recent visit to Europe, I met an anxious American father who has been living in Germany for over a decade. His children attend local public schools. They are now being taunted and isolated at school because they are Americans. Two weeks ago, a friend entered a dance club in Berlin wearing a pin showing the German and U.S. flags side by side. She was turned away by the bouncer, who announced that he was no fan of German-American friendship.

These are sad commentaries on the damage the Bush administration has done and could potentially still do to America's image abroad. If younger Europeans come of age with anti-American attitudes, the task of rescuing the Atlantic alliance -- to whomever it falls -- may well be out of reach.

Is this a "mission accomplished"?

By Charles A. Kupchan

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