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Why Europeans doubt Bush

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 24, 2005

It is difficult to gauge what is worse – bitter rivals or bosom buddies. Sometimes the actions of either group net identical results, almost as though they are one and the same. Such is the case with the relationship between European leaders and President George W. Bush. Europe is convinced that as best allies or worst enemies, Bush will not make serious efforts to include them during his second term.

On Monday in Brussels, a seemingly insignificant series of small incidents spoke volumes on what type of arm’s-length inclusiveness Bush plans for Europeans. As was usual during last year’s American campaign appearances, the White House dictated the visual messages placed on the stage backdrops, the visual insignias on the podiums as well as the stage placement of podiums, chairs and flags. Bush set a tone that the U.S. was the eight-hundred pound elephant in the room and had no intention of changing.

In another effort to avoid difficult questions during the president’s so-called campaign town hall meetings last year, the White House went to the extreme effort to hand-pick the entire audience for Bush’s major speech. It was another sign that the next four years will not change much. Europeans loudly heard that while Bush speaks of improving relationships abroad, he will absolutely not participate with those whom he most needs to engage, namely his policy opponents.

Most importantly, though, to better control the content and message that appeared in the United States, the White House insisted on two separate press offerings during Bush’s photo opportunity opposite French President Chirac – the first for foreign press, followed by a session for American reporters. To further manipulate the subliminal visual message for the American audience, the White House dared to alter the stage between press sessions.

Initially, the stage held a blue and white backdrop with the words “Belgium Brussels” centered behind two chairs. Four flags adorned the stage. Two flags sat at each side of the backdrop about two feet apart behind each president so that both flags, one French and one American flag, appeared over the shoulder behind each president in television close-up shots. During the first foreign press session, European broadcasts and the CNN European web site clearly showed a French flag behind Bush.

However, at the following American session, White House staff moved the French flag behind Bush so that it was almost totally obscured in the framed close-up head shots broadcast in the United States The blatant repositioning made the French flag’s white and red portions appear to be just another stripe within the American flag. The White House successfully portrayed “God Bless America and its freedom fries” back home.

Diplomacy is a vital element of world and American security. Yet Bush’s handlers have successfully portrayed “Old Europe” as weak and out of step. This president continues to play to the testosterone element of American society by stubbornly refusing to mend harsh feelings and admit that Europe has value in the world. What harm would it have been for our president to proudly display a French and American flag behind him as a visual reassurance to the world that he truly does want harmony with our traditional allies?

While most Americans accept Bush’s three changing excuses for invading Iraq – “weapons of mass destruction,” “better to fight there than here” and “Saddam was bad and Iraq is better off now” – Europeans do not hold the same Texas definition of diplomacy. They wonder why, for example, the United States does not simply invade Cuba, just 90 miles from our coast, because “Castro is bad and Cuba would be better off.”

Europeans know that Americans give their president a pass because of the World Trade Center attacks, yet French papers proclaimed that they were all Americans as well after the attack. They are upset that this week’s visit exuded a tone that Europe should get over it, that Bush would do it again without them again if he so desires. Diplomacy Texas style is rooted in the 2000 American election.

Like it or not, Bush took his 537-vote win in Florida as a mandate to govern without looking back. While some say the margin was only one vote, courtesy of the Supreme Court, the fact remains that Bush’s handlers have charged forward as though they had a Nixon or Reagan landslide. Although Bush barely garnered 52 percent of the vote in 2004 with only one more state in his win column, his handlers march at their usual zeal.

It is ironic that most of Bush’s agenda may not have succeeded if not for our sense of fear and revenge emanating from the attacks of Sept. 11. Americans have given Bush a blank check to fight terror, even in a benign Iraq over radical Iran or Syria. Europeans know that despite Bush’s claim that differences regarding Iraq should be left in the past, they know Bush will proceed with or without them. That is the type of diplomacy Europe may cope with for now, but will continue to doubt.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.