Bush's European Problem

LONDON—The chattering class here in London was abuzz earlier this month when, according to The Guardian, "it is understood" that polling commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair confirms President Bush's "spectacular unpopularity among British voters." Alas, the newspaper continued, "the findings ... have been kept within a tight circle of officials ... who refuse to divulge any details."

That's because there were none. Peter Mandelson, a Labor member of Parliament and one of Blair's closest advisers, said firmly, "There is no British government poll or Labor Party poll that provides any such finding." So where did the story come from? Gossip. And leaks, based on casual observation, not scientific evidence. How did the story get into a reputable newspaper? "It's August!" Mandelson said. And something else. "President Bush has come in for criticism, mockery—condescension, actually—from media commentators here in the U.K."

Jonathan Freedland, a political columnist for The Guardian, put it this way: "It's a kind of snobbery, which is a very unattractive side of Europeans. They think, 'This guy doesn't sound smart. He sounds like the worst Hollywood cliche of the gun-slinging cowboy.' We find it hard to respect that."

Disdain for President Bush has filtered down to public opinion, not just in Britain, but across Europe. "On the average, only one in five Europeans approves of the way Bush is doing his job," said pollster Jessica Elgood of London's Market & Opinion Research International. "That is extremely low for an American president. Far lower than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who reached peaks of 65 percent."

In other words, rumors of the Blair "poll" may have been unfounded. But they were not inaccurate.

Partly it's a matter of style. Bill Clinton had charm. So did Ronald Reagan. And George W. Bush? Freedland offered this comparison: "When President Clinton traveled, you got the sense he knew what buttons to press, no matter if he was in London, Prague, or Paris. He just had an emollient, smooth way of talking. George W. Bush often seems abrasive. He sounds aggressive. His manner and body language make it look like he's in a hurry, like he'd rather not be there."

So Europeans are suckers for charm. Is that it? Not entirely. Europeans will give you a long list of issues where President Bush has gone his own way. Global warming. The International Criminal Court. Missile defense. The Middle East peace process.

The basic problem is that Bush has trouble speaking to the rest of the world with an international language. President Clinton didn't. "The way Clinton couched his actions," Mandelson said, "it always seemed to be for the benefit of the whole international community. Bush's language doesn't emphasize that as much. It's more about American needs, American interests, American opinions."

Which is exactly what Europeans told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press last April. In overwhelming numbers, British, French, German, and Italian respondents said they believed that President Bush's decisions are based entirely on U.S. interests—and do not take European interests into account. That sentiment was endorsed by a ratio averaging 76 percent to 20 percent in the four countries.

The big fear across Europe right now is Iraq. Europeans say the United States has not made the case for "regime change." Europeans, in Freedland's view, "want to see the evidence that somehow Saddam Hussein poses a new, clear, and present danger. They think it's the old danger reheated to justify a new war."

This month, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opened his re-election campaign by rejecting what he called American "adventures" in Iraq. Public opposition is also building in Britain. Last fall, according to a Guardian poll, the British were solidly behind U.S. action in Afghanistan (74 percent). But this year, there is far less support for a U.S. strike on Iraq (35 percent).

All of which puts enormous pressure on Tony Blair. "If he aligns himself too closely with an unpopular U.S. president undertaking an unpopular foreign policy initiative, it could be very damaging for him domestically," Elgood said. Columnist Martin Kettle was more ominous. "If Blair gets this wrong, he could be gone by Christmas," Kettle wrote in the August 8 edition of The Guardian.

An incipient revolt is already brewing in Britain's Labor Party. Robin Cook, Blair's former foreign secretary, is emerging as the leading Cabinet critic of British involvement in any American-led action to topple Saddam Hussein. The Times of London reports that Blair has been given "a private warning of a massive Labor rebellion" if the issue comes to a vote in the House of Commons. The prime minister is already preparing to face a revolt over Iraq at the annual Labor Party conference this fall.

Mandelson warns, "If President Bush's military options are not accompanied by a political strategy to prepare public opinion, then I think we will see [European] governments lined up, but with public opinion straggling way behind."

Governments together, publics apart. That's the problem. And it's bigger than Iraq. "Fifty-three percent of the British public now see Europe as our closest ally. Only one-third see the United States as our closest ally," Elgood reported. "Clearly that shows a shift in British opinion," she added. "Twenty years ago, it was just the opposite."