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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

It goes without saying that George W. Bush is not loved in Europe. Even before the Iraq war raised animosity toward him to fever pitch, the perceived stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of the "Texan cowboy" had gone down badly across the Atlantic. His evangelical Christian beliefs do not sit well with mostly secular Europeans. His assertion of U.S. exceptionalism sticks in the craw. His contemptuous dismissal of the United Nations has angered even those Europeans who normally favor a strong alliance with the United States. So two days after the presidential election, when the Daily Mirror ran a front page picture of Bush next to the headline, "How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?," it was widely assumed that the paper was reflecting popular sentiment in this part of the world.

And it was speaking for most Europeans–just not for the Europeans who matter most. In France, Norway, Holland, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Britain, those surveyed preferred Kerry by ludicrously large margins that reached, in some countries, as high as eleven to one. (Only in Poland did researchers find a slim plurality of 31 to 26 for Bush.) But if the European public was rooting for Kerry, the preferences of European leaders were another matter entirely. And there is reason to suspect that, privately, most are relieved that Bush won reelection. Why? Because a Kerry victory was neither in the interests of those leaders (like Tony Blair) who have aligned themselves with Bush, nor to the advantage of antiwar leaders (like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder) who would have had to become more involved in war-torn Iraq if Kerry had won.

Start with Blair. Perhaps to appease those in the ruling Labor Party who fear they could pay a heavy price for their leader’s perceived closeness to the unpopular U.S. president in the British general election expected next year, some in Blair’s circle hinted, prior to last Tuesday, that the prime minister was rooting for Kerry. But the truth is that a Kerry victory would have left Blair dangerously exposed, with his two closest allies on Iraq, Bush and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, going down to defeat in the span of seven months.Blair would have found it even harder to defend an already-unpopular war to his constituents if the new man in the White House admitted the war was a mistake. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Poland’s Aleksander Kwasniewski, having both cast their lots with Bush on Iraq, would also likely have been reluctant to see him go.

But the consequences of a Kerry victory would have been least attractive for antiwar leaders like Chirac, Schroder, and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain’s new prime minister. Don’t be fooled by the statement of Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, who said that following the U.S. election there is "a kind of hangover in global opinion … just about all peoples wanted a change." The central plank of Kerry’s plan for improving the situation in Iraq was to "internationalize" it–that is, to get France, Germany, and other countries involved so as to reduce the military and financial burden on the United States and enhance the legitimacy of American-led operations in the country. Such pressure from a freshly elected U.S. president who had made so much of the vital need for America to consult and value its European allies would have been hard for Chirac, Schroder, and Zapatero to resist. To reject Kerry’s entreaties would not only poison relations with the new president; it would also confirm what most Republicans believe–that France and Germany are simply not reliable allies.

Yet for all the good will that Kerry would have enjoyed among European voters–for the simple reasons that he is not Bush and pays lip service to things they cherish, such as the need to combat climate change–there would have been little appetite for getting involved in the quagmire that Iraq has become. Neither Chirac nor Schroder are strong leaders; both are unpopular and are known more for their opportunism than their willingness to go out on a limb for their principles. Neither would have relished the thorny dilemma that a Kerry victory would have posed. Muddling along with Bush is politically safer–and therefore preferable.

And beyond Iraq, Bush’s hardline unilateralism has proven to be a powerful tool for Chirac and Schroder. His black-and-white rhetoric–"you’re either with or against us"–provides a much better foil for European leaders than Kerry’s consensus-seeking style. As a result, those who dream of constructing a European counterweight to American power no doubt took succor from Bush’s victory. The more Bush is seen to ignore Europe’s views, the greater the potential demand for a common European response that America cannot afford to ignore. François Bayrou, the head of France’s center-right Union for French Democracy party, probably spoke for many when he said after the election, "Confronted with a more determined America, Europe must bestrong." In short, a majority of ordinary Europeans genuinely mourned Kerry’s loss. But many, perhaps most, of their leaders did not.

Posted 10 Nov 2004 in Published articles

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