Memo to Bush: Europe Is Listening

George Bush is off to Europe this week, and a very strange trip it may well turn out to be. He’ll spend time in St. Petersburg, where the 300th anniversary of the city is being celebrated and the locals have been asked, not terribly politely, to leave: The Russian authorities don’t want them to detract from the splendor of the restored buildings. He’ll also be heading for Evian, France, home of the mineral water that he presumably doesn’t drink, where he’ll be meeting leaders of foreign countries he’d presumably rather not talk to. Oddest of all, though, he’ll be promoting a post-Iraq European policy that doesn’t seem to have much logic: “Punish France, isolate Germany, forgive Russia” is how his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is alleged to have described it — and this does, more or less, seem to be the plan.

Of the three prongs, the third is in some ways hardest to understand. Not only did the Russians support the French during the prewar squabbles at the United Nations, but a pair of Russian generals may also have advised Saddam Hussein, and Russian tracking equipment may have been used in the defense of Baghdad. It didn’t do much good, of course, but that isn’t the point. The Russians didn’t exactly go out of their way to be helpful to us either. Nevertheless, the administration is in a forgiving mood — apparently because it’s felt the Russians are so chaotic that it isn’t worth holding a grudge.

“Isolate Germany,” on the other hand, is the pettiest prong of the policy. So annoyed has he been by the opposition of the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, that Bush reportedly refuses to talk to him on the phone and will try to avoid meeting him one-on-one at Evian. If this policy is designed to lift the fortunes of Schroeder’s allegedly more pro-American political opponents, it could well backfire. After all, if a German chancellor were deliberately going out of his way to snub our president, Americans of many political backgrounds might well unify behind him, despite themselves.

On the face of it, “punish France” makes the most sense. If the Pentagon doesn’t want to conduct military exercises with France, that seems fair enough: The French don’t want to cooperate with us militarily so we won’t cooperate with them either. And yet — “punish”? It’s an awfully harsh word, and it has come into widespread use. Even Colin Powell has talked publicly about punishing France, as if France were not a longtime political ally that has become temporarily hostile but a recalcitrant teenager.

But then it’s also pretty condescending to forgive the Russians because they are unserious, or to refuse to speak to the German chancellor because he’s odious. And it’s a strange way to go about winning support in countries that are run by democratically elected leaders. What seems to be missing, in both the Bush administration’s prewar and postwar European diplomacy, is any sense that we are speaking not to a handful of unpleasant individuals but to entire countries. There is a carelessness about the language being tossed around Washington, as if no one here cares anymore about who might be listening. Besides, what does “punish France” actually mean? Punish all of the French — even the pro-American French? In diplomacy, how you say something is as important as what you do, if not more so.

Instead of dreaming up ways to be rude to Gerhard and offensive to Jacques, the president should concentrate on the people who are going to elect their successors. He should talk over the heads of the European chattering classes who have opposed him and speak directly to the television audiences that are listening around the world every time he so much as clears his throat. Just because we are the world’s only superpower doesn’t mean we don’t need to persuade people, from time to time, to listen to our point of view. I still believe that if the Iraq war had been explained early on to Europeans — instead of being presented to them as a fait accompli — the United States would have attracted far more public support.

Yes, the war did prove, as everyone knew it would, that we no longer need military allies — and in that sense, Europe is irrelevant. But the war also proved we do need allies for other things: to help in the nation-building we have such a national allergy to, and to help fight our battles in the multilateral institutions we so loathe. We do have a few — Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland — many of which are, not coincidentally, among the countries the president visited on his first trip to Europe. We could have more, if we bothered to cultivate them.

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