One of the most well-known — and most-often parodied — moments in modern movies is the opening sequence to 2001: A Space Odyssey. You remember: The monkeys, the bones, the big blank thing — it’s a totally mystical experience, man, something that has been blowing minds for a long, long time.
It’s also a pretty decent description of the European media when faced with George W. Bush, live and in concert as he has been this week in Europe. Bush thought he was coming to talk about the European-led initiative to drag Iran back from nuclear nuttiness, but the agenda on the ground, according to the European press, called for him to be scolded by the EU for the sin that is called Guantanamo.
By now, these visits, like all U.S. gestures toward multilateralism, are predictable processions of sorrow producing nothing but grist for Europe’s sanctimonious, anti-American media mill. Plus, many of the leaders of the EU’s member states have almost no political appeal except when they are playing the anti-American card. Over the last five years, this has had predicable results, as a Daily Telegraph survey of poll numbers shows. Not only is anti-Americanism still everywhere on the rise, America is perceived as a threat greater than a nuclear Iran. To Europeans, America is the problem they have to solve, not Iran.
The European press is obsessed with Bush, of course, as they are with all American presidents. But Bush is special. They cover the guy with adolescent frenzy, the way Teen Bag used to cover Ratt — except with less nuance and far less affection. They hate the guy and every day devote many thousands of column inches to explaining why. Here, for example, is the front page of Der Spiegel’s website. It doesn’t matter what day you go there — today, tomorrow, or, if you’ve come to this page late, six months from now. It’s very likely that the top items all will be Bush-bashing stories, a catalog of fantasy sometimes involving exciting scandals and outrages that exist only in the minds of the Spiegelhackenwriters. News that might even indirectly reflect well on the U.S. will not appear there except as a bottom story, if at all.
So there had been growing anticipation of the summit here for weeks that arriving in Vienna, Bush would be shackled with Guantanamo, the only issue that matters, and the rest — i.e, Iran’s nuclear threat — would be for the footnotes. Le Monde’s editorial today, equating American “lawlessness” with the weapons used by al Qaeda could have been written any time in the last several years. Yet, as Austria’s Standard reported, the event itself was anti-climactic, despite the presence of what the paper claimed were 15,000 demonstrators in the streets, and they weren’t there to thank the U.S. for getting their back. (The paper originally carried this photograph of Bush caught with his index finger under his nose so he looked like a goof pretending to be Hitler; the image has now been removed from the news page devoted to the summit.)
But the press’s program faltered in Vienna. Almost immediately, a reporter asked Bush about Guantanamo and almost before the chancellor of Austria could say “welcome to our pretty town,” Bush shot back with a plain-talk answer: “I’d like to close Guantanamo,” but then pointed out why that was easier said than done (something complicated involving cold-blooded killers loose in the street). Next, when asked about those polls that see the U.S. as a threat greater than Iran or North Korea, Bush said, “It’s absurd.” And finally when he was asked about rampant anti-Americanism, George actually spoke: “Look, people didn’t agree with my decision on Iraq, and I understand that,” he said. “For Europe, September 11 was a moment. For us, it was a change of thinking.”
To reporters from papers like the New York Times, this was evidence of “tension,” since the civility of exchanges between testy political leaders and innocent reporters with honest questions are the only barometers Times-type people understand. Headlines, like this one in the Daily Telegraph and others, claiming an “angry” Bush had “lashed out” at “anti-war critics” or that American “fury” had spilled over in Vienna was how the maroons in the press react when somebody brushes off their dumbest questions. In fact, as Libération groused, the whole meeting was disappointingly civil — perhaps because on issues that really matter, like Iran’s nukes, where the EU is supposed to be leading the non-proliferation effort, apparently nothing much happened.
Bush is the anti-sphinx — and there’s no doubt a discussion to be had about the cost in lives and treasure of having a president who is not sufficiently conversant with the language to be able to tell persuasively the story of America’s global mission. But at least we’re used to it. Not the European press. They just don’t know what to do with a guy like Bush whose oratorical style is best suited for delivery through the window of the pick-up parked next to you at Sam’s Club. Bush’s gruff, instant dismissal of the entire Guantanamo controversy left most journos throwing their pens high in the air in frustration. The big, blank thing spoke, but it didn’t stick to the script. As Le Figaro complained, Bush failed to make the EU summit “an act of contrition.” How can you argue that Gitmo should be closed with a guy who says, “Yep”? All that passion, spent.
By the time Bush got to Budapest, where he was given a much friendlier welcome, the European media was long gone and the issue of Iranian nukes completely nonexistent. The BBC’s World Service did its bit, informing listeners that America hadn’t actually gone to the aid of Hungary in 1956 and that some Hungarians were demanding an apology apparently for not launching World War III in their front yard. For most of the day Thursday, the World Service ran a clip of some impromptu remarks Bush had made on arrival that sounded, as Bush often does, like a man reading somebody else’s grocery list. BBC-TV’s usual venue for obsessive America-bashing, Newsnight — where, earlier this week Ann Coulter performed a delightful act of cannibalism on the bouffant-laden head of the BBC’s hilariously pompous quiz-show host and late-night interviewer Jeremy Paxman — was given over to a heated discussion of British parking tickets. (Paxman was sadly absent from that fray.)
It was a miracle – a non-apparition! Bush mysteriously vanished from the front pages of the European papers; the Times’s coverage today for example is little more than a blurb. Bush did actually deliver a speech in Budapest; the Washington Post carries proof. But if you want a European view of Bush in Budapest, you’ll have to break out your Magyar-English dictionary and head for Nepszabadag, where the Hungarian daily reflected the public sentiment and apparently gave Bush many kind but hard-to-translate words. The rest of the European reaction is either invisible or risible, as in this analysis from Deutsche Welle.
It’s interesting to compare the big Euro-shrug given to Iranian nukes, which over time will pose a greater and greater threat to Europe and is an issue which was clearly important to Bush, with the disapproval of a continent that cares more about the homicidal lunatics and terrorists in Guantanamo because it provides yet another opportunity for fashionably parading behind an anti-American banner. (The Daily Gut has an interesting plan for liberating all the detainees by just dropping them off at the airport in Brussels and saying, “Adios.” Scroll way down below his account of the drunken riot at Ascot.)
Maybe that banner will give them the shelter they need. Only 50 years ago, as a Guardian archive piece recalls, this was the news out of Hungary:
Civilised people of the world. On the watch tower of 1,000-year-old Hungary the last flames begin to go out. Soviet tanks and guns are roaring over Hungarian soil. Our women – mothers and daughters – are sitting in dread. They still have terrible memories of the army’s entry in 1945. Save our souls. This word may be the last from the last Hungarian freedom station. Listen to our call. Help us — not with advice, not with words, but with action, with soldiers and arms.”
We couldn’t do it then without running the risk of killing millions of Europeans and millions of Americans — not least because American ultra-leftists had helped the Soviets build their own nuclear arsenal. Sometimes, the inescapable logic of what is right takes a long time to shape events. Europeans however have a very persistent and illogical habit of ignoring peril until its tanks are taking up all their precious parking places.
It will be interesting to hear the news from Hungary 50 years from now. It may come while everyone in Europe is planning their pilgrimage to the big, black rock in downtown Mecca. My guess is that in Arabic, it’ll probably lose its poignancy.
Kofi Annan in your own home! In many places in Europe — France especially — the public school is an important instrument of social engineering, often used as a way of force-feeding kids the pieties of the state. Germany has long been hostile to homeschoolers, sometimes tossing offenders in jail. In Belgium, the authorities are using the U.N. to bust parents like the homeschooling blogger at The Brussels Journal, who reports that homeschoolers are being investigated by Brussels to see if their parenting skills measure up to the U.N.’s Convention on Children’s Rights. If U.N. peacekeepers show up, you are seriously flunked.
Science in action. I love scientific reports, especially ones that link something stupid with something even stupider. A British medical journal, according to the Independent, is now offering proof that 4×4s are dangerous to your health — even if you’re driving one. I’m working on a scientific study myself linking low self-esteem among men with increased incidence of rejection by women. It’s my life work, really.
Best in show. The Daily Telegraph’s W. F. Deedes is approximately 157 years old — I like to think of him as an Alastair Cooke for the younger set — and still writes, week in and week out, one of the most insightful columns in British journalism. Celebrate his birthday belatedly (it was June 1) with this week’s item on how increased authoritarianism in Brussels increases the likelihood of war in Europe. Suggested summer reading: His book At War with Waugh: The real story of Scoop, a memoir of the two men’s exploits covering the Ethiopian campaign in 1935.
— Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese.