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Strained U.S.-European Relations Turn Pragmatic

Second in a series

March 19, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — He's as ubiquitous as the Big Mac.

Europe can't shake the bowlegged cowboy peeking out from a too-big Stetson, arms bent and ready to draw. This political caricature of President Bush endures, even as transatlantic relations have improved from the derision and backbiting that one year ago marked the beginning of the Iraq war.

A lot has happened in that year. While the U.S. has been preoccupied with securing Iraq, Europe, in many ways, has set its own course. Perhaps more than the U.S. itself, Europe understands that the Sept. 11 attacks changed U.S. priorities and that Washington's old friends are often overshadowed by new strategic alliances.

The terrorist bombings in Madrid last week -- possibly orchestrated by Islamic extremists to punish Spain for supporting the Iraq war -- are forcing some European nations to reevaluate their partnerships with the U.S. The leader of the newly elected Socialist Workers Party in Spain has vowed to withdraw the nation's 1,300 troops from Iraq, a prospect that would undermine U.S. efforts to build an international coalition.

The specter of terrorism and differences over world security are turning the Cold War-era transatlantic friendship into steely pragmatism. The continent has a two-dimensional view of the U.S. Although most people in London, Paris, Berlin and other capitals feel an affinity for Americans, that closeness does not extend to a White House seen as rash and militaristic at a time when globalization needs patience and diplomacy.

"The last four years have been hell," said Francois Heisbourg, a foreign policy expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "The Bush administration's view of things is, 'You're either a poodle or an enemy.' The Bushies don't tend to forget."

Such widespread attitudes are softened by nostalgia many Europeans have for U.S. forces who liberated them more than half a century ago.

"If you go to the American cemetery in Cassino or the cemetery in nearby Anzio," said Italian waiter Dario Di Tiello, 40, speaking of his nation's World War II battlefields, "you can see how many Americans are buried there, how many came to save us from hell. We always forget these things. For me, the American people were a great people, they still are a great people."

The spate of across-the-pond name calling -- Euroweenies versus cultural bimbos -- has largely subsided. But Europeans have been reminded that they are more different from Americans than they once thought. Attitudes toward gay marriage, capital punishment and other social issues reveal the chasm between a liberal-leaning Europe and a conservative-tilting America.

And the Bush administration's weaving of religion through politics -- especially when the president invoked God as he was going to war -- unnerves European secularism.

"There's an extraordinary element of fundamentalist type of religion in American life," said Roger Duclaud-Williams, a political science professor at the University of Warwick in Britain, adding that he was bemused that Janet Jackson's flashed breast at the Super Bowl caused so much hand-wringing. "It's a kind of Christian-based Puritanism for which our educated governing class doesn't have much sympathy."

Europeans have tried to move beyond rancor when discussing Washington. Conversation is as dignified and proper as a tea party on the Thames. There are the occasional snide asides about Europe's moral authority and the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been unearthed in Iraq. But when the brandy is poured in the anterooms, or pints are hoisted in pubs, Europeans swoon and giggle over John Kerry, the continent's new poster boy.

"Kerry has Europe's Vote," said a headline in the Economist.

The Financial Times Germany has written of Kerry: "His first cousin is a French mayor. His father was a diplomat. He spent school years in Switzerland. He thinks the death penalty is bad and thinks the Kyoto Protocol, intended to protect the global climate, is good. If the Europeans were allowed to vote for the U.S. president this coming November, a triumph for the Democratic challenger John Kerry would be assured. Never has a U.S. president been so disliked in Europe as George W. Bush."

Some Europeans are quick to add that Kerry would be a pleasant change of personality, but that terrorism and shifting world hotspots would prevent him from significantly altering U.S. foreign policy.

The Madrid bombings have given Europe a keener understanding of acting within one's own interests and have raised challenging questions: Does supporting the U.S. mean bringing Islamic terrorism to European cities? If Spain withdraws troops from Iraq, what domestic pressures will Britain, Italy and Poland face to do the same?

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