With the clock ticking ever closer toward a possible war against Iraq, the
gulf between the Bush administration and the public in Europe's most powerful
nations continues to widen.
Interviews conducted over the past few days in England, France and Germany
show mounting anger and disgust with the administration's perceived
determination to push the Iraq crisis to a military conclusion regardless of
world opinion. Russians, meanwhile, seem largely indifferent to the unfolding
Criticism of President Bush and his inner circle for what Europeans
consider an obsession with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein does not extend to
the American people themselves, who are spoken of with some affection and are
widely considered to be dupes of their own government.
Deeply held pacifism is a thread that runs through the outpourings of
ordinary Europeans, not surprising for a continent where two world wars began.
"I don't believe you can work out anything through violence, whether with a
child, an adult or a whole country," said Sally Graham, 48, a North London
Henriette Haudrikje, 31, a Berlin fitness-club clerk, said Germany was
"doing the right thing" by refusing to jump on the war bandwagon. "We are
pacifists," she added. "Our grandparents had enough experience with war to
know it is not a good thing."
Anger about a perceived American desire for world hegemony is an even more
Amirouche Laidi, the deputy mayor of the Paris suburb of Suresnes and a
member of President Jacques Chirac's center-right party, said: "The world's
biggest power is acting in a very crude way. We see it in (its rejection of)
the Kyoto accords, with its refusal to allow Americans to be judged in the
International Criminal Court -- even as Americans talk about being the world's
biggest democracy -- and with its refusal to allow African countries free
supplies of generic AIDS drugs.
"The Bush administration's position is totally schizophrenic. It says one
thing and does the exact opposite."
Sabine Volt, 35, a Berlin public relations representative and mother of two, said, "America is setting itself up as the protector of the world. I'm just
not sure I need to be protected right now."
President Bush and his closest aides come in for fierce personal criticism
Peter Lawrence, 60, a civil servant in Great Wilbraham, England, said: "I
hope and am prepared to believe for the moment that (British Prime Minister
Tony) Blair is sticking with Bush because he realizes those guys are dangerous
. . . and that he can moderate them by being there.
"Linking Iraq with Sept. 11 makes no sense to anyone, but that is what Bush
is doing -- harnessing Americans' nationalistic fervor . . . to attack Iraq
and make them feel good and vote for him next time, in spite of the recession."
Patrick Wintour, chief political correspondent for The Guardian, reported
on Friday that some British Cabinet members are furious with Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld for alienating European public opinion, and he quoted one
minister as saying of Rumsfeld, "He frightens me."
Paris news vendor Richard Halden called "totally infantile" Rumsfeld's
recent labeling of France and Germany as "Old Europe," while Deputy Mayor
Laidi scorned Bush, saying "he isn't called 'Mr. Oil President' for nothing;
that's the real objective."
The low esteem in which Bush is held by Germans is stunningly illustrated
in a recent poll by the respected Forsa agency quoted in the liberal weekly
Der Spiegel. It found 54 percent of Germans consider Bush a danger to the
world. Thirty-eight percent said they believe he is more dangerous than
Attempts by Blair -- Bush's principal ally on Iraq -- to make a moral case
for the war have come at a steep cost.
Support for the ruling Labor Party has plummeted to its lowest level in a
decade -- 35 percent, only one point ahead of the opposition Tories. A BBC
poll released on Thursday showed 90 percent of Britons opposing a war without
a second Security Council resolution and 45 percent saying there should be no
war no matter what the United Nations decides.
Dominique Chadwick, 47, a film producer in Cambridge, England, faulted not
only the Bush administration for its "rather arrogant attitude in expecting
everyone to go along with its ideas" but ordinary Americans for their "failure
to understand the Iraq situation as well as they should."
"They complain about 'Old Europe's' reaction, but I feel that we are much
more aware and informed than they are," she added.
"I think Americans are too into their own country. They don't have a global
vision of things," said Chantal Janisson, 44, a press representative at a
French publishing house who lived in the United States for 11 years and is
married to an American.
Western Europeans say they have spent much time trying to educate
themselves about the Iraq crisis, reading background books, watching
documentaries on television and discussing the issues earnestly with friends.
This appears not to be the case in Russia, where the dire condition of the
economy is a far bigger concern.
"Does America attacking some country in the Persian Gulf have anything to
do with me being able to put food on the table for my children?" asked Alyona
Fedusova, a computer programmer at a Moscow job-recruiting agency.
"I think not. Then why should I care about it? This is not my war."
As millions of anti-war demonstrators massed on Saturday all around the
world, just over 100 people showed up at a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in
Russians' lack of concern for Iraq, a longtime ally of the Soviet Union,
was evident in a poll last week by Moscow's Public Opinion Foundation, which
found only 19 percent support for Baghdad. More than 60 percent of those
surveyed said Russia should not get involved in the looming conflict.
Anti-American sentiment swept over Russia four years ago, when thousands
threw paint balls, eggs and even fired gunshots at the U.S. Embassy to protest
the bombing of Serbia, another long-standing Russian ally and fellow Slav
But the events of Sept. 11 appear to have changed all that. Washington's
assertions that Iraq is linked to Islamic extremist groups -- including in
Russia's own breakaway republic of Chechnya -- were met with understanding in
a nation scarred by several dramatic terrorist attacks.
Pollster Alexander Oslon said: "Today Russia looks at the world through the
prism of terrorist threats. Russians certainly feel closer to America than to
"We have a common experience: We are both victims of terrorist attacks,"
agreed Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political
Amid the angst and outrage expressed by Western Europeans, there is also
wistfulness over the growing distance from a longtime friend.
Helen Zimmer, 82, who has been a Berliner her entire life and remembers
seeing neighborhood women raped by Russian soldiers, said: "My memories of the
Americans are all good. They were the ones who helped us when we needed it."
Even if there has to be a war against Iraq, she said it is important not to
isolate Americans -- "They are still our heroes. We can't abandon them."
Ginette Line, a 62-year-old retiree in Paris, said of Americans, "We were
happy to have their support in World War II. They helped us a lot. But we need
to avoid this war."
Some political analysts and commentators also worry that demonization of
the all-powerful United States is a stance that their own countries will live
to regret in the long term.
An editorial in the conservative German newspaper Die Welt stressed that
"one does not have to approve of every move of U.S. power politics to
recognize that the ad hoc (anti-war) alliance of Germany, France, Russia and
China is an adventure doomed to fail."
It further lamented that "the wisdom of being allied with a distant world
power is simply being ignored" by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government.
Le Figaro, a leading conservative Paris daily, fretted in an editorial on
Wednesday that "nobody will be spared" the ruinous legacy of an Iraq invasion.
"Reticent allies like Germany and France . . . will feel the consequences
on their fragile economies. (If the price of oil soars) . . . , neither
country will escape a recession. The euro zone will tremble."
At the end of the day, however, what hurts Europeans most is that
Washington seems determined to simply ignore the opinions of the vast majority
of citizens in the countries it calls its closest allies.
Francois Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic
Research, described himself as "somebody who's lived in the United States and
probably has as close a relationship with America as anybody in France."
He opined: "For me to come to the conclusion that we simply have to stand
up and not be counted alongside the U.S. -- that takes some doing. This
administration has succeeded in doing that.
"The loss of goodwill here is just phenomenal."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle