After two years of rough going with our friends in Europe, President Bush’s trip there this week has begun smoothing things over. He doesn’t have the mischievous charm of former President Clinton, but Bush still has impressed Europeans with his own Texas quasi-cowboy persona. These things are not trivial in international relations.
On Iraq, events have served to lessen the hostility of most of “old Europe” (mainly France and Germany) to the U.S. invasion two years ago. After the initial victory against Saddam Hussein’s military, U.S. forces have had a difficult time defeating a stubborn insurgency, with nearly 1,500 U.S. dead and 10,000 casualties. But democracy began budding in last month’s election and, if it can be nurtured, might take hold in the Iraqi desert.
“No one is denying there were differences in the past (on Iraq). But that is the past,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Wednesday when he met President Bush. Schroeder was a leader of European opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Now, Germany and other European nations have agreed to a minor effort to help train Iraqi security forces.
Basically, on Iraq both sides are “trying to paper over their differences, but there will continue to be fissures,” said Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. The European leaders are restrained by the majorities of their own people, “who don’t want involvement.” He also believes that if the military situation in Iraq worsens, public opinion in Europe will force European leaders to push harder for an American exit.
Bush also wanted European leaders to join him in pressuring Iran on potential nuclear weapons development, including potential use of force. The Europeans want the Americans to join them in dialogue with Iran’s mullahs. “While endorsing those talks, Bush has refused European requests to join them,” Reuters reported. So large differences remain.
On Monday, Bush surprised diplomatic observers by calling on the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin to “renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.”
Bush is “going into a Jimmy Carter mode of browbeating countries” on human rights, Eland said. The president’s stance stems from his second inaugural address’ call for global democracy. But diplomacy requires more finesse. “The problem is that many times people on the ground are worse off when these regimes are publicly lambasted,” Eland said. Russia’s government, which still has thousands of nuclear weapons, isn’t likely to be bullied any more than is the dictatorship of the People’s Republic of China.
Eland said quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is better, except when light needs to be put on specific persecuted dissidents.
Overall, the president seems to have improved America’s standing among our European friends. But the remaining problems there, as well as the reality on the ground in Iraq, show that idealism still must be tempered with realism.