Why Bush may emerge a victorIf the "Old Europe," stretching from Germany westward to Spain, could vote in the American presidential election, John Kerry would win by a landslide. So deep are the hatred and contempt for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld that the Europeans overlook some enduring truths about America. These are factors that a change of occupancy in the White House will hardly overturn.
True, John Kerry wears Hermes ties and speaks perfect French. True, if he were president, the tone of American foreign policy would become more polite and less harsh. There would also be an effort toward more multilateralism as well as greater respect for the etiquette of diplomacy. But the basics that have irked and provoked America's old allies will not disappear.
Take the list of indictments that Europeans always hold up against Mr. Bush's America: reneging on the Kyoto Protocol (on the cutback of greenhouse gas emissions), the refusal to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the refusal to sign the treaty banning land mines.
Europeans now remember the Clinton administration with great fondness, and so they forget that it was Mr. Clinton who buried Kyoto in the Senate, that it was Mr. Clinton who pulled back from the ICC, knowing full well that the Senate would not ratify the treaty. Given the growing threat of ballistic missiles, a Democratic administration, too, would have pursued a defense system, even at the cost of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. The land mine ban? As long as U.S. troops in South Korea feel threatened by an invasion from the North, these mines will be kept in place by a Democratic president, too.
So what about Mr. Kerry? He is very careful to hide his positions in speeches dedicated to the "on the one hand, on the other" theme. Was he for or against the Iraq war? We don't know, and he does not seem to know either. He became a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War, but he also campaigns as one of America's great war heroes. Will he soften the "War on Terror?" Not as long as the United States remains the prime target of Al Qaeda et al. Will he submit Amerian security policies to majority votes in the United Nations? Hardly.
The larger point here is this: America is the mightiest nation on earth; its interests span the entire globe, and they are threatened everywhere. Nor does the United States live in the blessed place that is Europe, where peace has reigned for the last 50 years and where nations have been happy to give away sovereignty bit by bit for the sake of a more perfect European Union.
America, whether ruled by Mr. Bush or by Mr. Kerry, is in a class all its own in terms of power, interest and vulnerability. Thus it will always be ready to use force in pursuit or defense of its national interests - something the Europeans are neither able nor willing to do. In short, unlike the Europeans, the United States will remain "Gulliver Unbound," unwilling to submit to institutions devoted to the principle of "one nation, one vote." So the unilateralism Europeans have always bemoaned in the Bush era will remain an enduring component of American foreign policy.
Nor is it so clear that Mr. Kerry will carry the day on Nov. 2. The slight edge in the polls he enjoyed after the Democratic Convention has vanished; Mr. Bush is now ahead in the polls, having gained from a "convention bounce" following the Republican gathering in New York. Why? The best answer is Bill Clinton's. In December 2002, he had warned his Democratic Party that in bad times, people will prefer the "strong and wrong" to the "right and weak."
In other words, Mr. Kerry is stuck in the "patriotism trap." He cannot play his best card - opposition to the Iraq war - for fear of being tainted as a weakling and betrayer of the nation's interests in times of war. And he cannot make a convincing case for having the better domestic policy because he is deathly afraid of angering this or that powerful domestic constituency.
So let's not count Mr. Bush out, as horrible as his failings have been in Iraq. Nor does the electorate seem particularly upset about the huge deficits in the federal budget and the just as fearsome trade deficit that has eaten into the value of the dollar. If you have one candidate (Mr. Kerry) who cannot really make a convincing case for himself, and another (Mr. Bush) who is the leader of a nation at war, chances are that the electorate will pick the latter.
A lot can still happen between now and November, but this commentator is putting his money on Mr. Bush. It comes with a wish attached, though: May the second Bush administration conduct a more prudent and cooperative foreign policy than the first Bush administration has done.
* The writer is the editor of Die Zeit, a German weekly, and a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute.