[OPE-L:7284] A Callow Cowboy Stumbles

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Thu May 30 2002 - 01:14:02 EDT

Financial Times
Gerard Baker: A callow cowboy stumbles
By Gerard Baker
Published: May 29 2002 19:50 | Last Updated: May 29 2002 19:50
For a moment it looked as if Jacques Chirac had swallowed something
unpleasant. The French president gazed uncomprehendingly at George W. Bush,
his lips pursing and then opening in what looked like a Gallic gasp for air.
It was halfway into a press conference in the Elysée Palace on Sunday
afternoon and Mr Bush had just stumbled his way through another answer,
forgetting part of the question and joking at his own lack of focus. "That's
what happens when you get past 55," he cracked.
Not only is Mr Chirac about to turn 70 but his advanced age was, for a
while, a sensitive issue in the presidential election campaign just
It was as though Mr Chirac had gone to Washington a few weeks after Mr
Bush's inauguration and made flippant remarks about the unreliability of
recounts and the role of patrimony in American presidential politics.
Mr Bush's insult was unintentional, of course, but it was not the only
jaw-dropping moment in Sunday's performance by the travelling American
president. Earlier Mr Bush had said he was looking forward to trying some
French food, because "[Jacques] is always telling me the food here is
fantastic", apparently indicating that he had not heard about the quality of
French cuisine in his previous 54 years on the planet.
Later he got into a peevish exchange with an American reporter who had
graciously asked Mr Chirac a question in French. "He memorises four words
and plays like he's all intercontinental," Mr Bush sneered. Reporters
shuffled their notebooks and looked at their feet, embarrassed by this
spectacle of an American president jeering at a fellow American for speaking
their host's language.
Mr Bush's clownish performance was attributed by some to fatigue. It was Day
Five of his European trip and for the past three nights he had been up way
past his normal bedtime of 9.30pm. But there had been other moments, earlier
in the trip, when his comments and demeanour had been a little less than
that normally expected of visiting schoolchildren, let alone heads of state.
On Day Two in Berlin, he had declared that he wanted to "securitise"
dismantled Russian nuclear weapons. On Day Three in Moscow, he said
retaining a strategic nuclear force was necessary at least in part for
reasons of "quality control".
In St Petersburg, taken to see the magnificent art collection at the
Hermitage Museum, the president had looked gloomily at his watch as the tour
rolled on past 20 minutes. He seemed to perk up only when his guide stopped
to talk about a portrait of a semi-naked Venus, causing Mr Bush to smirk as
he tried to catch the eye of each of the reporters accompanying him.
The St Petersburg tour provided an intriguing contrast. When Vladimir Putin
came to Texas, he was treated to a barbecue and a hoe-down on the ranch. In
the old capital of the Romanovs, Mr Bush got the Hermitage and the ballet.
Since September 11, we have got used to seeing and appreciating the serious,
inspiring side of Mr Bush's plain-spoken simplicity. His simple moral
leadership and evident compassion and strength shoved aside snobbish doubts
about whether he was up to the job. But this last week was a reversion to
the troubling callowness of the campaign aeroplane.
It was hard not to see in the performance a barely concealed, swaggering
Texan contempt for Europe and all its high-flown diplomatic niceties and
high-brow cultural sensibilities. And it was revealing, perhaps above all
else, for what it said about the strained relations between western Europe
and the Bush administration.
For all the talk - justified talk - of substantive transatlantic differences
over Iraq, the "axis of evil", the environment, trade, multilateralism and
the global system, onlookers were reminded that a large part of the issue is
Mr Bush himself.
Europeans - not just the elites but much of their populations - simply find
Mr Bush irredeemably uncouth, a walking, talking version of every American
cliché they love to hate. In cartoons, this figure plays any number of
roles: the loudmouth at the restaurant, haranguing the waiter because his
hamburger is insufficiently well done; the man who sits next to you on the
transatlantic flight with endless stories about the size of his car,
mispronouncing the names of European cities.
It is an easy step to make between the First Tourist displaying vast chasms
of ignorance about the world beyond the Bible Belt and the unilateralist
president pursuing American hegemony in ways that Europeans do not like.
Such attitudes, of course, betray the same sort of unsophisticated
chauvinism on the part of Europeans as was on display at times from Mr Bush
this last week. There are forces and arguments driving US foreign policy -
many of them deserving of the sort of serious hearing they do not get in
Europe. But those arguments have a hard time getting through to Europeans
when it is Mr Bush who is putting them.
Europe's leaders may understand the difference - but with agitated
electorates on the Old Continent expressing dissatisfaction with their own
and American leadership, these popular caricatures transmit quickly through
the media and opinion polls into policy constraints.
In the end, painful though it is to admit it, this is Europe's problem,
rather than Mr Bush's. The American president is not going to become
suddenly a model of cosmopolitan sophistication, putting an urbane case for
US conservatism as he sashays, Kennedy-like, through the drawing rooms of
Europe. Europeans are just going to have to get over it and display the kind
of sang-froid Mr Chirac so admirably demonstrated last Sunday.

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