Politicus: If Bush has been right, then who's been wrong?

Posted in Europe | 15-Mar-05 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

US President George W. Bush
MADRID "Middle East on the Move, Is Bush to Thank?", a newspaper's banner headline quite fairly asked Europeans last week. What a terrifying premise.

Perhaps not for scores of millions of Arabs. But if George Bush is proven right on Iraq, and more than a bit responsible for the Arab Spring of shaky political advances now shimmering from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, then it's a frightening development and delegitimizing situation for European politicians from Spain to Germany.

They are pols like Gerhard Schröder and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero who essentially won election by running against Bush and the Iraq war. Leaving the talk of freedom or jihadist terrorism to the yahoos, they have linked their futures to what they supposed would be the eternal vote-cornucopia of resistance to Bush's vision for the Middle East.

Adding France and Belgium, the group widens to include governments that hoped to leverage their stance on Bush and the war into a genesis myth for a Europe redefining itself as America's counterweight.

Until the elections in Iraq, in this view, Europe's wishful identity as both moral superpower and tower of wisdom had been demonstrated to the world through Bush's headfirst dive into the hopeless Middle East. In the minds of the Zapateros and Schröders, Europe's place as the Righteous Power had become so self-evident recently that in planning to end its embargo on arms sales to China, Europe could proceed with the single near-comic argument that Beijing's rulers felt discriminated against.

Now, things are happening that suggest the start of a change in European mind-set in the zone where the Bush administration usually was called dumb and dangerous.

Example: while hundreds of thousands of Lebanese hit the streets in pro-democracy demonstrations, the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted 473 to 8 to call on the European Union's 25 leaders "to take the necessary steps to end the terrorist activities" of Hezbollah, the largely pro-Syrian Shiite group that the United States has been asking the EU for years to put it on its terrorist list. The Parliament's motion said that "irrefutable proof exists of Hezbollah's terrorist action."

It's unlikely that Hezbollah will wind up officially labeled as terrorist by the EU, since Spain and France resist the idea, and such a designation would take a unanimous vote of the member states. But, all the same, the new tone of the Parliament last week was remarkable.

A near-identical buzz was also present in a letter sent by a coalition of legislators from all the parties in the Parliament's German delegation (the Berlin coalition's Social Democrats and Greens included) that called on Schröder to abandon his attempts to lift the China weapons embargo.

The group didn't just say that ending the ban disregarded continuing human rights violations in China and endangered the strategic balance in Asia. It also startlingly argued that the United States' opposition was "understandable" and the result of "justified concern for its interests in the region" guaranteeing the security of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Could this be European revisionism on Bush? In any event, when it comes to movement in the Middle East, Laurent Murawiec, a French security affairs expert, wrote that progress certainly wasn't the work of the Holy Ghost or "the very French strategy based for so long on not 'isolating' terrorist killers" like Hezbollah.

The newspaper Le Monde, whose headline asked if Bush was to thank for the flicker of hopefulness in the Arab world, published a reply from official but unnamed French voices. Naturally, they said, France couldn't deny the power of American influence and military presence in the region, but instead they insisted the winds of change did not emanate from the war in Iraq, where little was yet resolved.

In this version, the advances in the Israel-Palestinian conflict yielded no credit to Bush for his refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat; or, indeed, introspection about the years of diligent French support for him. Rather, Bush's essential Middle East contribution had been pressuring Israel to enter talks with the Palestinians again.

Such is the region through French theoretical eyes. In fact, events have made France something of an American ward on the Lebanon-Syria issue, a situation that tacitly gives Bush his due more meaningfully than anything France could say.

When the Syrians pushed Jacques Chirac's intimate friend, Rafik Hariri, out of power in Lebanon, the gesture signified to the Middle East that French protection or practical leverage there meant little or nothing. To respond to this affront, and to jab at its former friends in Syria, France enlisted the Bush administration last fall to produce a joint Security Council resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

Then came Hariri's assassination a month ago. Because it refocused Arab attention on the incapacity of France to act alone in any material fashion in the region, the French hewed to the Bush line on the specifics of a Syrian pullout and supporting Lebanese democracy. On Iran's nuclear arms program, if the Americans have endorsed the European negotiating plan for now, it has come at the cost to France of a public promise to the Bush administration to help it in bringing Iran before the Security Council if the talks fail.

Unlike Schröder, Chirac has the personal luxury of staying away from immediate grief arising from the new facts. Schröder must go to the polls next year in German circumstances of disastrous unemployment and the weakest growth prospects in Europe.

Alongside that lost economic strength and the appearance of Bush-led change in the Middle East, add an increasingly ludicrous Schröder campaign boast of Germany re-emerging as a political force in the world on the basis of his opposition to the Iraq war.

Still, given a year to maneuver and Arab democratization more time to crystallize into reality, Schröder, as Europe's most facile political chameleon, might find a way to persuade his electorate that his steadfastness turned Bush into a peacemaker.

This revisionist reach is virtually impossible for Zapatero. In Spain's schoolyard of hand-on-throat politics, Zapatero seems required to inflict defeat every day on the conservative allies of his predecessor, José María Aznar, a vibrant supporter of Bush.

Saying that Bush may have gotten something right - Zapatero invited George Soros, Gary Hart and Tariq Ramadan, the Islamist political battler banned in the United States, to a conference here last week to insist that Bush hadn't - would mean the end of a domestic war Zapatero wants to continue roaring.

And that's not to mention disdain for looking at the world as it is.