IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Bush to visit Europe in face of negative opinion

Members of the Austrian Greens dressed up as Guantanamo detainees protest Monday in front of the federal chancellery in Vienna against President Bush's visit this week.
Members of the Austrian Greens dressed up as Guantanamo detainees protest Monday in front of the federal chancellery in Vienna against President Bush's visit this week.Lilli Strauss / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Haditha. America’s problems with Iraq are casting a long shadow over President Bush’s meeting with European Union leaders this week.

The gathering is restricted to U.S. officials and the European Union leadership, and the agenda focuses on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, agricultural subsidies and the West’s dependence on imported oil and gas.

But the United States’ precarious world standing will be the unspoken theme of Wednesday’s session in Vienna.

Ahead of the visit, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said he doubted Bush would have much to say about the U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and alleged killings of Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha.

‘Out of control’
For millions of Europeans, however, these are the issues that matter — and their concerns are shared by politicians.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, plans to urge Bush to close Guantanamo. Peter Pilz, a senior member of Austria’s Green party, says Schuessel should tell Bush “that the criminal actions of his government will not be tolerated in Europe.”

Pilz is one of Austria’s more outspoken public figures. Still, his sentiments — that the U.S. is breaking the law in Iraq and in its larger fight against terror — are shared by many Europeans angry over the Iraq invasion, recent suicides at Guantanamo and the reported existence of secret CIA prisons worldwide.

Newspaper editorials reflect Europe’s dismay with a partnership most here see as has having gone wrong.

“Those who came as liberators, those who wanted to bring the rule of justice ... lost their moral credibility in Iraq,” wrote the German weekly Die Zeit. “Not just a few soldiers have ’lost their control’ as they like to say. America’s entire Iraq policy is out of control.”

In France, the newspaper Le Monde wrote of the Guantanamo suicides: “We continue to ask by what heavenly decree America holds itself above the rule of law.”

Young people, like Andrej Mantei of Berlin, are even more scathing. “I don’t think it’s possible that anybody could make worse foreign policy than Bush,” he says.

Negative impact
And even many older people are critical, unlike a few decades ago, when they equated America with the war against Nazi Germany, postwar reconstruction and the shield against the Soviet Union.

“I think Bush was wrong, and he should have remorse,” said Rosa Sarrocco, 80, of Rome. “The recent events ... have had a further negative impact on my opinion of America.”

America’s image problems in Europe are reflected by a survey done by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and released last week. Favorable opinions of the United States ranged from a high of 56 percent in Britain to a low of 23 percent in Spain.

Even in Britain, support for Bush was only 30 percent, and 60 percent of British respondents said the Iraq war has made the world less safe.

Pro-U.S. sentiment is stronger in much of formerly communist eastern Europe, where Washington’s contribution to toppling Soviet dominance lingers in many minds. It peaks in Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanian majority gratefully remembers the U.S.-led bombing in 1999 that forced Serb troops from the province.

“Till I die, I will support whatever America does, be it in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere,” says Arben Shaqiri, a 25-year-old bartender in Pristina, Kosovo’s main city.

The cowboy president
But “Old Europe” is more critical. There have always been trans-Atlantic rivalries, but the divide has grown: The end of the Cold War removed the threat that had united America and Europe since World War II.

It’s partly a reflection of two societies drifting apart as the continent seeks to preserve its model of free college education, universal health care, seven-week holidays and other social programs that reflect a different emphasis from the American work ethic.

In his book, “The European Dream,” author Jeremy Rifkin outlines characteristics that push the two peoples apart. “The American Dream puts an emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth and independence,” he writes. “The new European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life, and interdependence.”

A recent addition to the differences is widespread European dislike not just of the Iraq war but Bush’s blunt style. Editorials often talk of the Texan as the “cowboy president.”

Washington’s decision to work in concert with other world powers as it tries to engage Iran over its nuclear program shows America may have learned some lessons about the benefits of diplomacy.

Still, the damage seems done.

“Whatever the Bush administration does, it is automatically viewed with suspicion by the European population,” says Steven Casey of the London School of Economics, an expert on American public opinion.