PARIS, Jan. 23 — In Europe, it often seems that it is not only the wisdom of a war against Iraq that lies at the heart of trans-Atlantic differences, but the personal style of George W. Bush himself.
To European ears, the president's language is far too blunt, and he has been far too quick to cast the debate about how to separate Saddam Hussein from his weapons of mass destruction in black-and-white certainties, officials in Paris and Berlin say. They add that his confrontational approach, his impatience with the inspections and even his habit of finger pointing as he speaks undermine the possibility of common strategy against Saddam Hussein.
"Much of it is the way he talks, this provocative manner, the jabbing of his finger at you," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, the vice chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the German Parliament. "It's Texas, a culture that is unfamiliar to Germans. And it's the religious tenor of his arguments."
Over the past several months, as Mr. Bush has mounted his argument for forcing Iraq to disarm, the president himself has once again become the issue here. In interviews in three capitals over the past week, diplomats, politicians and analysts said they believed relations between the United States and two of its most crucial allies — Germany and France — were at their lowest point since the end of the cold war.
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair is heckled by student Iain Wilson, 22, left, an anti-war protestor, while speaking at the South Camden Community School in London, Thursday Jan. 23, 2003. Blair was speaking on domestic policy to a selected audience, when Wilson interrupted, accusing the Prime Minister of 'missing the point' over a possible war with Iraq. (AP Photo/Johnny Green)
As the White House was quick to argue today, the American president has friends and admirers among the leading politicians in several Western European countries, starting with Britain, Italy and Spain, and spreading east to Poland.
It is no wonder, Mr. Bush's foreign policy aides say, that he has redrawn his mental map of America's alliances, and that Paris and Berlin have been placed in the deep freeze for failing his loyalty tests.
An American diplomat trying to keep European objections from delaying Mr. Bush's timetable for disarming Iraq said he heard similar complaints all the time.
"Much of it is the way he talks, the rhetoric, the religiosity," he said of Mr. Bush. "It reminds them of what drove them crazy about Reagan. It reminds them of what they miss about Clinton. All the stereotypes we thought we had banished for good after Sept. 11 — the cowboy imagery, in particular — it's all back."
From the French Foreign Ministry to the chancellor's office in Berlin, there is broad acknowledgement that the breach between the United States and its traditional allies in Western Europe has gone beyond the friction that has long been a staple of French-American relations or the misunderstandings that have grown since the cold-war ended.
Senior officials insisted in interviews that in France and Germany Mr. Bush had not made the case that Iraq posed a more imminent threat than, say, Al Qaeda.
One French official argued that the American military's failure to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda's top command had led Mr. Bush to search for "easier but less important prey."
"Terrorists are a hundred times more likely to obtain a weapon of mass destruction from Pakistan than from Iraq," one senior European official said, not permitting a reporter to identify even his nationality because tensions with Washington are so high. "North Korea is far more likely to sell whatever it's got. But can we say this in public? Can we have a real debate about priorities? Not with George Bush."
This sense that many European officials have of dealing with an American president who makes up his mind and then will accept no argument is a central element in the current friction.
In interviews, German and French officials acknowledge that Mr. Bush's goal — the disarmament of Iraq and ouster of Mr. Hussein — would be best in an ideal world. In the next breath, though, they argue that for now, the containment of Mr. Hussein's power — with inspectors keeping the Iraqi leader off balance for months — is a perfectly acceptable second choice.
While Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that a show of military might will begin to change the map of the Middle East, German and French officials say it will more likely lead to a radicalization of the Arab world, a fractured Iraq and a prolonged struggle with Washington over who will pick up the pieces.
The bitter exchanges between President Bush and America's European allies over whether and when to go to war against Saddam Hussein have now gone well beyond an argument about strategy.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company