Wednesday, February 19, 2003

What’s Bugging the Europeans?

It’s becoming clear (to me at least) that the reasons Europeans are so stridently opposed to forcing Iraq to disarm itself have little to do with the substance of peace and justice in the Middle East and much more to do with the style of Americans. It's not so much a reasoned debate as it is a visceral reaction to Americanism.

The views of the leadership in Paris and Berlin are a bit more methodical. President Chirac gave it away yesterday when he made resistance to American influence a precondition for membership in the EU.

The International Herald Tribune analyzes why Iraq has become and existential issue for France and Germany and concludes that its because France and Germany (as they see themselves now) cannot exist without successfully blocking the U.S. and U.K. on Iraq. If the governments in Paris and Berlin cannot project their influence in Europe, they have will no influence whatsoever overseas.

In effect, Europe becomes a fractured collection of small states with France and Germany no more influential than Belgium or Denmark. Indeed, by ignoring France on Turkey, NATO has already demonstrated Chirac’s impotence.

That’s why Chirac blew a gasket in Brussels using undiplomatic, dare I say “cowboy-ish,” rhetoric.

As for the demonstrators filling the streets of Europe, their concerns seem to reflect a discomfort with George Bush. It seems odd that when matters as important as war and peace are in the balance reasonable people would be focused on such superficialities as President Bush’s habit of pointing his finger when he talks.

This poll seems to indicate that while the overwhelming majority of people in France know Saddam is a threat to peace what really irritates them is that that means they have to agree with Bush. If Bush does eventually act and force regime change in Iraq, these arguments will linger but remain as now entirely inconsequential.

This dislike of Bush is somewhat understandable when you realize that most Europeans have had little exposure to Bush outside of some sound bites and film clips. They have no comprehension of his sense of humor, they can’t neatly categorize his politics, and they are alarmed at his use of the word “evil.” The average Frenchman in Lyon doesn’t recognize that to an American audience, “evil” is a Reaganesque word designed to separate George Bush Jr. from other American politicians including to some extent his own father George Bush Sr.

Of course, Americans have just as wildly skewed views on European leaders. Few people in the U.S. know that Chirac once worked in a forklift operator in St. Louis.

The difference is, few Americans would presume to know anything about the French President, his background, his views, tastes, eloquence, or intentions. Europeans as far more likely to believe they know the United States. After all, they’ve been deluged with American movies, music, images, sounds, and tourists. Surely this amounts to some sort of insight. Well, yes but it’s the same sophisticated insight Americans have about Europe from driving Volkswagens.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of Europe but the U.S. is talking about war and peace while the Europeans are talking about cowboy hats and the future of the EU. For once the Americans are focused on issues of substance. That’s why they are leading the agenda and why Europe remains reactionary.

For what it’s worth, this won’t be resolved through talking.

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