Richard Reeves

What Are They Saying About Us in Washington? Nothing!

PARIS -- When the cheering stops for President Bush in Europe, the continent will go back to being a Chicago joke. As in a fellow from Chicago asking a New Yorker, "What are they saying about us in New York?"

The answer, of course, is, "Nothing."

When the president goes home after a relatively successful visit, people in Washington will say nothing and forget most everything about Europe. In the capital of the United States, the Old World is being seen in much the same way Japan was 15 years ago: an economic giant but a political and military dwarf. An anti-American commentator, Philippe Grasset of France, summed it up by saying that what the United States wants Europe to be is just a big Switzerland.

It was very decent of the American president to take a few days off to stroke our old allies, even if he made it quite clear that while we welcome European help in our various adventures, we are going to go ahead and do our thing whatever they do or say here. The Financial Times of London was tougher than Grasset, running a column that quoted an anonymous Washingtonian saying: "It wasn't just that the Europeans were unneccesary in Afghanistan. The Europeans were in the way in Afghanistan."

The president's personal good will and pleasant effect went a good way toward improving at least the tone of the ongoing official distance and distrust between Europeans and Americans. But he did nothing that could be interpreted as anything other than getting our old friends out of the way in things that matter to us, like violating our own rules on such things as free trade in steel, lumber and textiles, and our verbal buildup to war against Iraq.

As The Guardian said, in England: "Europeans, rightly or wrongly, have come to see Mr. Bush as a man committed to unending conflict in his 'war on terrorism.' His talk of 'axis of evil,' his division of the planet into 'civilised' and 'uncivilised' camps repels both by its simplism and by its implied promise of indefinite mayhem."

That was written, from the left, just before the President's Berlin speech, and he pretty much followed that script with somewhat milder dialogue. Part of Bush's political charm -- and European nervousness -- is that he is showing a talent for saying and repeating what he means and, indeed, seeming to mean what he says. He is not confusing Europeans and other friends. He is rhetorically direct and consistent now, not the bumbler he sounded only a year ago. That is no small thing here, because although European governments grumble about American arrogance and belligerence, they prefer tough talk to confusion about the intentions of the world's only superpower.

"Call this a strategic challenge; call it, as I do, an axis of evil; call it by any name you choose, but let us speak the truth," he said in his Reichstag speech. "If we ignore the threat we invite certain blackmail and place millions of our citizens in grave danger. ... Wishful thinking may bring comfort, but it does not bring security. Make no mistake about it, we will and we must confront this conspiracy against our liberty and our lives."

After the Berlin speech, which was generally well received, at least for its truth-speaking, The Financial Times got it almost right in a lead editorial that ended: "There is a continuing suspicion in Europe that Mr. Bush will go his own way whatever his allies may say. That may be the message he intended to deliver yesterday. If so, Europe will have to live with it -- but Mr. Bush will also have to get used to European grumbling."

That last bit was wrong. President Bush and his compatriots in Washington can't even hear grumbling from the faraway Old World.

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