|Get used to it, Europe: Bush could win again |
Roger Cohen IHT
Saturday, September 4, 2004
NEW YORK When Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to the United States, receives visitors from the Bundestag these days, they ask him what the result of the American election is likely to be.
"Well," Ischinger says. "The vote is very close. But the likelihood of President Bush winning is at least 50 percent."
The usual reaction is: "Mr. Ambassador, you cannot be serious. Are you suggesting Bush could be reelected?"
To judge by the Republican National Convention, which took over midtown Manhattan this week, Europeans and the rest of the world had better get over their incredulity and get used to the notion that four more years of Bush is a real possibility. This is a seesaw election: The candidate who looks like dead meat one week looks like a hungry hunter the next. Another swing could be just around the corner. But right now, Bush has seized the initiative.
The president has been helped by sloppy moves from the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who got himself photographed this week windsurfing off Nantucket, an island retreat of the well-heeled. With less than 60 days to the vote, Americans want hard work from Kerry and fewer reminders of his wealth.
The Kerry campaign has given the impression of groping for a theme, or at least a sound bite, to derail the barreling Bush bandwagon.
In theory, the mixed economy should provide such a theme. But this first national election since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks seems driven by foreign and national security policy. In this area, and in ways that have illustrated the gulf between the United States and much of Europe, the Bush team has been relentless in attacking Kerry.
Here, for example, is the view of Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat from Georgia who has embraced Bush. "Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide."
This derision - with no basis in what Kerry has said - comes just a few days after Jacques Chirac, the French president, told his ambassadors in Paris that the ground rules for the world should be set from the "United Nations charter, which is the law that applies to all of us."
On this side of the Atlantic, among Republicans, contempt for the UN is very much in vogue, with contempt for France not far behind.
The moral framework within which this election is being framed by the Bush team is this: The United States is at a crossroads, faced by a nihilistic terrorist enemy bent on its destruction, and must take the fight to this enemy, whatever the UN thinks, under the unwavering guidance of its current savior-president.
The alternative: Armageddon on its shores as a Kerry administration wavers.
The message is not very subtle. It overlooks several troubling questions - the loss of American credibility due to unfound weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the loss of American moral stature due to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the loss of American popularity due to a wide international perception of bullying - but it is a message that hits home in the heartland.
For a long time, the United States has defined itself against an enemy that threatened the freedom whose spread throughout the world it sees as a central national calling. That enemy was a Nazi, then a Communist, now a jihadist.
The Bush administration has seized this central truth, couched it in the moralizing and religious idiom that is the language of the Republican Party base, and developed an overarching argument designed to make Kerry look like a conciliatory wimp unprepared to defend America in its hour of need.
To many Europeans, the arguments - full of references to heroes and glory and the mystical forces that Bush, in his concluding speech, identified as "a calling from beyond the stars" - look simplistic, even dangerous.
Ana Palacio, the former Spanish foreign minister in a government that was friendly to Bush, put it this way during a visit to New York this week. "A widespread European view is that it is the very aggression of the United States - and of Israel - that is generating terrorism."
But such ideas do not impinge on Republican certainties expressed with a force insistent enough to frame the debate in America. The chants of "USA, USA, USA," that have risen repeatedly from the crowd in Madison Square Garden, most deafeningly when Bush said he would "never relent in defending America, whatever it takes," are indicative of a restive national mood.
While the nations of Europe have quietly retired from history - at least the history of great national combats - and placed their faith in international institutions and laws, the United States has entered upon another epic struggle that it sees as defining for the future of mankind. "A struggle of historic proportions," Bush called it, waged by "the greatest force for good on this earth."
A day earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney said, "The election of 2004 is one of the most important, not just in our lives, but in our history." On it, he suggested, hinged the security of the American people.
But, Cheney went on, "Senator Kerry denounces American action when other countries don't approve."
Then came the punch line: "George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."
Because those Bundestag visitors still do not believe Bush may win, Ischinger does not get asked about the consequences of such a victory.
But privately he is worried about the future of trans-Atlantic relations. "I can see the European editorials," he says, "the expressions of disbelief."
This week has made the roots of that disbelief clear: A big part of the United States is pumped up for a mission to demonstrate in the Middle East what Bush called "the transformative power of liberty."
Transformative upheaval is not the European thing these days: Been there, done that. So the Continent is worried.
Roger Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.