Politicus: Europe in for a letdown if it's counting on Kerry

Posted in United States , Europe | 30-Mar-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - At one end of a marble hall in the U.S. House of Representatives' Sam Rayburn office building, George W. Bush's re-election aspirations were taking a jostling. Testimony before the Sept. 11 commission contended that the self-described war president had not paid attention early or fully enough to warnings about Al Qaeda's murderous capabilities.

About 100 strides down the hall, at the same time last week, some of Europe's grandest illusions about what a new Democratic administration might mean to the European Union were also being jarred, minus the din and camera lights next door. Congress's leading Democratic voices on foreign policy, with a trace of the disdain that so rankles Europeans, suggested that their critical view of the European Union's weaknesses was intact, and that in puckering up for a November embrace Europe might have to settle for a formalistic kiss.

This may come as a surprise in Europe, where wide segments of opinion, official and public, confidential or boisterous, want Bush beaten. Many influential Europeans seem to believe that Senator John Kerry in a Democratic White House would restore both respectful equanimity to the American side of the trans-Atlantic relationship and, perhaps more naïvely, aim to redefine U.S. interests in a way that did not seem so self-interestedly American.

Pushed to the extreme, this might be called the European School for Reforming America. In this notion, a needy United States seeks out European counsel, converts to multilateralism and submits get-tough inclinations to the United Nations for the veto-ready muster of China, Russia and France. In the Rayburn Building's Gold Room, such tones were unmistakably absent from the remarks of Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and of Representative Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. At a seminar sponsored by the University of Michigan, Biden and Lantos were joined by Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House committee, and Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton, to talk about the European Union and the United States before a group that included the German and French ambassadors in Washington.

In looking eternally inward, Biden said, the European Union's leading members had for the most part had taken their eye off the ball about the rest of the world. Europeans misguidedly tended to regard the United States as an imperial power, he added. And their leaders offered no really constructive alternatives to the Iraq war.

Recalling that he had talked to six European government chiefs about the war, Biden caricatured how they would have done things better. "Blah blah blah, international cooperation," the senator mimicked. He added, in his own voice, "Give me a break, huh."

When Biden offered the possibility, beyond more civility, of a future in contrast to the Bush administration, it was in a plague-on-your-houses context. He said of the two, Europe and Bush, "You have fallen in love with international institutions to the extent that this administration has fallen in love with unilateral action."

For good measure, Biden threw in the view that the European Union will not have a unified foreign policy, and with it, the phrase, "I hope you do, I wish you well, but I see no evidence you're going to spend the money needed" to create a serious European military force either.

Biden left the prospect of a trans-Atlantic emotional healing to Lantos, who was born in Europe. He saw none at hand. There was no hatred in America for Europe, he said, just "disenchantment and disillusion." The new American college generation "couldn't care less" about Europe.

Indeed, for Lantos, the European-American bond was now "a cold-blooded, cynical relationship." Perhaps a bit ironically, he then explained the situation as a basis for optimism in that it perhaps made for more rationality on both sides.

All this, word for word, might not be Kerry's party's message in the strictest sense. Yet it came from the mouths of two influential Democrats who did not get to their leading roles in forming congressional opinion on foreign affairs by nonconsensual posturing or freaky one-man crusades. Indeed, Kerry would very much need their support if he wanted to reverse the Bush administration and participate in the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Protocol on the environment - symbolic issues for Europe that European ambassadors here do not expect to rank high among the candidate's priorities if elected. In fact, since getting cornered with a remark that many foreign leaders wanted him to win (and for reasons of discretion, not being able to identify them when pressed by the Bush campaign), Kerry has had effectively to disavow two such endorsements with an advisory that he would neither seek nor accept support from overseas.

Part of this was a no-brainer in the American political context: A statement of backing for Kerry from former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia prompted Rand Beers, Kerry's foreign policy adviser, to describe the ex-leader as "an avowed anti-Semite whose views are totally deplorable."

The other pledge of support required much more subtlety, bearing as it did the mark of those in Europe who would cast Kerry as an American flagellant, ready for a virtual apology to all for America's size, strength, and national instincts. Before he was elected prime minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said he was "aligning" himself with the Democrat. After Zapatero's victory and his statement that Spain would pull its troops out of Iraq if UN authorization was not forthcoming, Kerry was caught in the position of having to deal with a self-appointed European ally apparently clueless about American politics. Kerry urged Zapatero to reconsider on Iraq and said he should "send a message that terrorists cannot win by their acts of terror."

Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, who served as foreign policy adviser to the Howard Dean campaign for the Democratic nomination, verbally shrugged. If Kerry wins, he said, there may be a new effort at better understanding, but "there's going to be real disappointment in Europe, in terms of their expectations, about everything being hunky-dory again. I don't think many Europeans understand U.S. politics."

Biden suggested at least one did. He told his audience of visiting an unnamed European leader whose government opposed the war in Iraq. Do you think it's more important to have the situation in Iraq righted than to see Bush defeated, the senator asked the European.

The leader cleared his throat, hemmed and hawed, began three different sentences, and, according to Biden, finally gave an answer. "Yes," he said.