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In Europe, Bush's America Is a Real Turnoff

Allies across the Atlantic are puzzled over a rupture in a 60-year-old bond -- and dismayed at the appearance that the U.S. isn't working to fix it.

August 07, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MAGDEBURG, Germany — Horst Henning is not a subtle man.

"Nein, nein, nein" reverberates often from his lips.

So when the question arose about the poor state of affairs between the United States and Europe, Henning, a retired bus driver, sat on a park bench here and aimed his wrath at President Bush. As if a bad odor had just engulfed him, Henning lifted a finger to his nose and snapped: "Bush wants to rule the world. He has big muscles, but the brain of a mouse."

Although the major combat in Iraq is long over, there remains an unsettled peace between the longtime transatlantic allies. Anti-American sentiment -- rooted largely in the policies and personalities of the Bush administration -- remains palpable across the continent. Europe's strong opposition to the war has intensified with Washington's failure to discover significant evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

"It was a betrayal of world opinion," said German novelist Peter Schneider. "We are much more doubtful of America's moral high ground."

Finding common ground with the U.S. is a tedious effort. A liberal Europe is wondering how to reconcile with a conservative White House that doesn't seek approving nods from Paris and Berlin.

Bush has become the caricatured poster boy for Europe's disdain, but much of the vitriol directed at him points to deeper differences that emerged between transatlantic friends after the fall of the Soviet Union -- and before he was in office. And many Europeans fear that the America they once considered naive but sincere has evolved into a more sinister power.

"It's frightening to see the political landscape so divided," said Katja Koch, an interior designer from Berlin.

Throughout the 1990s and the first years of this century, Europe grew wary of Washington's status as the world's sole superpower and criticized the U.S. for drifting toward religious conservatism, practicing capital punishment, snubbing environmental treaties and mastering globalization to saturate the planet with American values and commerce. Meanwhile, wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo reinforced America's military superiority over the less advanced armies of its allies.

Europe became less of an equal partner with Washington and something more akin to a pipsqueak stuck in the sidecar of an American-made motorcycle. Insecurities about the transatlantic relationship intensified over the last 10 years as European leaders attempted to unify the continent while dealing with rapidly aging populations, immigration pressures, the revival of right-wing political movements and stagnant economies, especially in Germany and France.

But Europe's affinity for Bill Clinton, then the occupant of the White House, kept the diplomatic veneer intact, and relations with some nations -- notably Britain -- grew stronger. Cracks developed with the election of President Bush, who for many Europeans epitomized the stereotype of the swaggering, defiant and sometimes-snickering American. With the Cold War over and terrorism the overriding concern in Washington, the 6-decade-old transatlantic bond weakened as the U.S. and Europe differed over a new world order.

"Sept. 11 changed America," said Karl A. Lamers, a German legislator and a member of the NATO Parliament who has close ties to Washington. "I remember 40 years ago, when John F. Kennedy came to this country and said that a Soviet attack on Cologne or Frankfurt was an attack on the U.S. But he never imagined something like that could happen in America. It has happened, and everything has changed. History has opened a new chapter."

Friendship in 'Crisis'

Old alliances are being recast as former friends act for their own national good. Although the U.S. and Europe still share strategic and economic interests, their political friendship has lost much of its warmth.

The European Union, for example, is expanding beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and building its own military. This, along with the continent's shift to a single currency, is conjuring Eurocentric attitudes and desires to balance American power. For its part, the U.S. plans to downsize its bases in Europe and shift forces eastward, saying the move is in response to new global threats. Spats erupt daily on a litany of other issues -- genetically modified foods, human rights, so-called greenhouse gases.

"In the French-American relationship, this is the biggest crisis ever," said Philippe Roger, a French scholar whose book, "The American Enemy," examines France's centuries-old anti-Americanism. "The French government is eager to forget about it.... But I am more struck by the lack of interest in America to repair things."

The U.S.-European relationship "won't go back to what it once was," said Andreas Etges, a history professor who organized an exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin commemorating the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's visit.

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