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Bush irritates Europeans like bur under saddle

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PARIS — In Europe, it often seems that it is not only the wisdom of a war against Iraq that lies at the heart of trans-Atlantic differences, but the personal style of George W. Bush himself.

To European ears, the president's language is far too blunt, and he has been far too quick to cast the debate about how to separate Saddam Hussein from his weapons of mass destruction in black-and-white certainties, officials in Paris and Berlin say. They add that his confrontational approach, his impatience with the inspections and even his habit of finger pointing as he speaks undermine the possibility of establishing a common strategy against Saddam .

"Much of it is the way he talks, this provocative manner, the jabbing of his finger at you," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, the vice chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the German Parliament. "It's Texas, a culture that is unfamiliar to Germans. And it's the religious tenor of his arguments."

Over the past several months, as Bush has mounted his argument for forcing Iraq to disarm, the president himself has once again become the issue here. In interviews in three capitals over the past week, diplomats, politicians and analysts said they believed relations between the United States and two of its most crucial allies — Germany and France — were at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

As the White House was quick to argue Thursday, the American president has friends and admirers among the leading politicians in several West European countries, starting with Britain, Italy and Spain, and spreading east to Poland.

It is no wonder, Bush's foreign policy aides say, that he has redrawn his mental map of America's alliances, and that Paris and Berlin have been placed in the deep freeze for failing his loyalty tests.

An American diplomat trying to keep European objections from delaying or Bush's timetable for disarming Iraq said he heard similar complaints all the time.

"Much of it is the way he talks, the rhetoric, the religiosity," he said of Bush. "It reminds them of what drove them crazy about Reagan. It reminds them of what they miss about Clinton. All the stereotypes we thought we had banished for good after Sept. 11 — the cowboy imagery, in particular — it's all back."

From the French Foreign Ministry to the chancellor's office in Berlin, there is broad acknowledgment that the breach between the United States and its traditional allies in Western Europe has gone far beyond the friction that has long been a staple of French-American relations or the misunderstandings that have grown since the Cold War ended.

Senior officials insisted in interviews that in France and Germany Bush had not made the case that Iraq posed a more imminent threat than, say, al-Qaida.

One French official argued that the American military's failure to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida's top command had led Bush to search for "easier but less important prey."

"Terrorists are a hundred times more likely to obtain a weapon of mass destruction from Pakistan than from Iraq," one senior European official said, not permitting a reporter to identify even his nationality because tensions with Washington are so high. "North Korea is far more likely to sell whatever it's got. But can we say this in public? Can we have a real debate about priorities? Not with George Bush."

This sense that many European officials have of dealing with an American president who makes up his mind and then will accept no argument is a central element in the current friction.

But there are also substantive arguments over approach that never ended after passage last November of Security Council resolution 1441, giving Saddam a "last chance" to disarm.

In interviews, German and French officials acknowledge that Bush's goal — the disarmament of Iraq and ouster of Saddam — would be best in an ideal world. In the next breath, though, they argue that for now, the containment of Saddam's power — with inspectors keeping the Iraqi leader off balance for months — is a perfectly acceptable second choice.

While Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that a show of military might will begin to change the map of the Middle East, German and French officials say it will more likely lead to a radicalization of the Arab world, a fractured Iraq and a prolonged struggle with Washington over who will pick up the pieces.

"What's happening is exactly what Dick Cheney feared: Once you decide to go to the U.N., it would take a lot of time." said Francois Heisbourg, the director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, which conducts defense research for the French government. "There's just no sense of urgency. Other threats looks greater."

The bitter exchanges between Bush and America's European allies over whether and when to go to war against Saddam have now gone well beyond an argument about strategy.

Bush's defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, gave voice to that thinking on Wednesday when he dismissed the mounting opposition in France and Germany, calling the two countries "old Europe," and all but declaring that in the Bush White House, they no longer mattered.

Rumsfeld's comments predictably raised a storm Thursday in both Paris and Berlin, with a French Cabinet minister responding by alluding to a vulgarity that one of Napoleon's generals used when the British sought his surrender at the Battle of Waterloo.

Bush has made no secret of ranking his allies by their fidelity to his missions. Britain remains at the center of his universe, with Prime Minister Tony Blair an ever-reliable ally.

After that comes Poland, the most gung-ho new member of NATO, whose president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, said in an interview last week, "if it is President Bush's vision, it is mine."

Next in line is Spain, whose conservative prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, "probably talks to Mr. Bush more frequently than any other European leader," a White House official reports. Then comes Australia, another conservative government, and always willing to contribute forces. After that is Italy — with a third conservative prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi — and then Russia, led by a man with whom Bush seems to have bonded, President Vladimir V. Putin.

But Germany fell to the bottom of the list with last September's elections, when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder violated what Bush thought was a pledge and ran a virulently antiwar campaign.

France fell off last week, with its vow to organize a common European position against military action, at least for several months. Both countries "failed the Bush loyalty test," the senior aide noted.

Some in Europe are tired of being held to such standards of fidelity. Bush-bashing is old sport here: The president got off to a bad start with the Europeans when he declared the Kyoto environmental agreement "dead" — an undiplomatic wording that White House officials now cite as one of their biggest mistakes in the president's first year in office.

Then came the charges of unilateralism as Bush rejected American participation in the International Criminal Court and pulled the plug on the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.

His handling of events after Sept. 11 won him new respect, especially among foreign policy elites. But that respect has eroded now.

Even in Britain, Blair has been worn down by months of standing by Bush's side as many members of the prime minister's own party openly denounce the American president's confrontational approach. In a political cartoon in The Observer newspaper last weekend, Bush was depicted as the Lone Ranger, replete with two pearl-handled revolvers, and Blair was drawn up as Tonto, his loyal Indian companion. When Blair expresses doubts about their mission, Bush says, "Shut up, Tonto, and cover my back."

Blair seems genuinely convinced that Iraq poses a threat to Britain, and several British officials said in interviews that it was critical not to show any public differences in tactics with Bush.

"You can't show any ankle at all in an operation like this," said one British official, "because the inspections only work if the forces on Saddam's borders are a credible threat." He paused, and added, "You would think the Germans would understand that."

If members of Blair's government fear he is too close to Bush, some in Berlin fear Schroeder has burned his bridges while Bush sits in the White House.

Schroeder's advocates in Berlin remain convinced that without renouncing any German participation in an Iraq conflict, he was doomed to electoral defeat.

But White House officials say Schroeder went back on a promise to Bush not to attack the American approach for political advantage — and that Bush will not forget it. They are unimpressed with his recent, quiet offer to give the United States use of German airspace and extra protection for American bases in Germany.

Germany, too, is unimpressed. "The likelihood of using force is deterring Saddam, but it is also deterring the allies," said Karsten D. Voigt, the coordinator for German-American cooperation in the country's foreign office.

Voigt is scornful of German colleagues who refuse to recognize that, in his view, the arms inspections in Iraq have only gotten this far because Bush and Blair have been willing to put forces on the Iraqi border. But using them, he says, is another thing.

"We know about containment," he said at breakfast the other day, gesturing in the direction of where the Berlin Wall once stood. "We lived with it for 50 years. It worked. And at the end, we got regime change."

Germany's moment to make this point is only a week away, when it takes over the chair of the Security Council for the month of February.

In France the rhetoric is less heated, but the suspicions of Bush's motives are no less real. French officials may have been playing to the home audience when they hinted that the country may use its veto power in the Security Council to prevent a second resolution, authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, to pass anytime soon.

But there is a clear fear here that Bush will respond to the French threat by avoiding such a vote altogether. One senior diplomat predicted the next few weeks "will be the defining moment on whether the United States decides to stay within the international system."