As I write this, thousands of ardent young people are boarding trains and buses, heading towards Spain, towards Sweden, towards just about every place that President George W. Bush might possibly appear in public on his first state visit to Europe. By the time you read it, you may have already seen them waving their posters and shaking their fists and shouting their slogans on your television screen. Indeed, three days before his arrival, 10,000 of them had already packed the streets of Madrid, protesting American policies in Iraq and in Cuba, against the evils of missile defense, against the rejection of the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gases, against the “American imperialist who thinks the whole planet is his back garden.” So panicked was the Swedish government about the disruptive potential of these ardent young people, that it sent special police squadrons and even army troops to Goteborg, where the American president was due to meet his EU colleagues for the very first time.
And yet – one detects a certain half-heartedness about this apparently stellar Swedish effort. The Swedes may have sent soldiers to defend the American president – but they also offered free accomodation for the protesters in state schools. The Spanish too have been less than grateful for the President’s unprecedented decision to make their country his first European port of call. The newspaper El Mundo recently wrote an editorial declaring that “the only hope we have for the energy plan developed by George W. Bush is that is contains so many blunders that Congress will throw it out.” But then, it too was in good company. A recent Suddeutsche Zeitung headline read “Bully Bush,” while the French are regularly treated to a satirical puppet show in which the Bush puppet can never remember the Chirac puppet’s name.
Only Warsaw, a city Bush is visiting on Friday, towards the end of his European tour, makes a curious exception to this pan-European wave of hatred for the American president and his foreign policy. There may be a demonstrator or two here as well – not long ago, a nineteen-year-old Polish anarchist threw a well-aimed egg at former President Clinton. But the fact is that the current centre-right Polish government bears no particular grudge against Bush’s centre-right adminstration. Broadly, the Poles support American foreign policy – in Iraq, in Kosovo, probably on missile defense – perhaps because the Poles have no special qualms about American domestic policy either. The current Polish government is also committed to cutting taxes; abortion is already more or less illegal here anyway; a political party calling itself “Law and Justice,” led by the tough-talking justice minister, is at the moment surging upwards in the opinion polls. And aren’t American domestic policies really what this otherwise inexplicable wave of anti-Americanism is all about?
To see what I mean, it helps to compare Bush’s foreign policy with his predecessor. Look carefully: on issue after issue, they are virtually identical. Okay, Bush discarded the Kyoto treaty; Clinton had abandoned it already, not least because he couldn’t get it through Congress. Bush is cooler towards Russia; Clinton had already cooled towards Russia in the last year of his administration, following the election of President Putin. Bush is in favour of missile defense; Clinton, given the chance to quash missile defense, failed to do so. Bush is publicly doubtful about the wisdom of bribing North Korea to stop building missiles; Clinton was privately doubtful, and his administration had already slowed down the negotiations. Bush has bombed Iraq, and is still boycotting Cuba; Clinton – well, Clinton bombed Iraq, boycotted Cuba, bombed Sudan, occupied Kosovo, bombed Serbia, armed the Croats, invaded Haiti – yet never incurrred the wrath of the European Left the way that Bush does, even though Bush still hasn’t had time to invade anybody at all.
Part of the difference lies, of course, in the personality of Clinton himself. By his second term in office, the ex-president had so mastered the aw-shucks-I-just-want-to-feel-your-pain method of communicating with the outside world, that no one saw him as an imperialist. Such a charming man – Suddeutsche Zeitung would never think to call him a bully. In this sense, the Monica Lewinsky affair also worked in his favor. Half the world was so busy telling Clinton jokes to the other half of the world that no one had time to notice what the president was actually doing, when he was not too busy having (or claiming not to have had) sexual relations with junior members of his staff.
But the more important difference, as I say, is that Bush’s domestic concerns are different from those of Clinton. Let’s face it, the European Left doesn’t like the death penalty, it doesn’t like American social conservatism, it doesn’t think people should own guns and it doesn’t understand born-again Christianity, all of which it associates, fairly or not, with Bush (never mind the fact that Clinton personally approved the execution of a retarded man while he was still governor of Arkansas, fighting his first presidential election campaign).
Above all, the European Left doesn’t like tax cuts, which threaten its own assumptions – and could even threaten its own power, if they caught on over here. It is not, I believe, coincidental that the other major hate figure around at the moment is also a tax-cutter: the cross-European wave of disopprobrium which greeted Sylvio Berlusconi’s surprisingly decisive victory in the Italian elections was part of the same syndrome. To the Germans, the French, and indeed to the British, all of whom are at the moment ruled by social democrats, Berlusconi’s election was incomprehensible: they simply couldn’t grasp the fact that the Italians hate their over-bureaucratic, over-regulated, over-taxed system so much that they were willing to elect a man of deeply suspect and possibly criminal origins, merely because he promised, convincingly, to reform it.
No, the Germans, the French, and indeed the British are not interested in lower taxes or in smaller government, as our own election just showed. Hence the hostility to Berlusconi; hence the hostility to George Bush and his so far bland and centrist foreign policy. And hence Bush’s decision to make his first two bilateral visits to Spain, which has a centre-right government (despite its left-leaning chattering classes) and to Poland, which has both a centre-right government and centre-right chattering classes.
Indeed, I am reliably informed that Bush wanted to go to Italy too, but Berlusconi, who has only been sworn in this week, was not yet prepared to receive him. It is not, I suspect, entirely accidental that Bush has failed to visit London, Paris or Berlin on what may well be (the president’s past travel history is a deep secret) his first trip to Europe. President Bush might not be able to spell T-O-N-Y B-L-A-I-R but he has already worked out where he is most likely to find European friends – and where there is no point even looking.