As many normally alert readers may not know, the president of the United States has been visiting Europe again this week. He shows up over here from time to time, usually to urge countries to do stuff they don’t want to do. He is ignored and convinces no one. And when he leaves, the dust that covers much of European political life is undisturbed.
This visit has been no different. The only difference between this visit and previous ones is that it’s his last. So far, the big news about George W. Bush’s “farewell tour” has been the absence of news about George W. Bush.
Some have found this remarkable. But the truth is, the president has made no news at all on this visit. His publicity tour is competing against real news, such as that ready to come out of Ireland later today, where, as Reuters reports, the EU’s undemocratic locomotive may come off the rails. Besides, the weather’s been glorious in most parts of Europe this week, so even in Rome, Bush-beaters couldn’t even mount a successful street demo. The European press tried to cover these non-events as if they mattered, while the AP comically strained to make a few hundred “marchers” into an army of outrage for Wall Street Journal readers: “Although Wednesday’s march drew far fewer demonstrators than previous visits by the president, it provided evidence that the Italian public still opposes the Bush administration.”
Other than the usual meet-at-the-airport picture pasted on the front page, most Bush headlines were tucked away inside. The coverage was dutiful; the European press, having exhausted itself on a steady diet of high-carb hate clichés, covered the president’s visit as if he were the queen of England — with whom he had tea, by the way. The Guardian, whose approach toward anything even vaguely center-right is normally juvenile, even offered readers a little slideshow of Bush’s visit. The pictures are pretty and apparently not ironic.
It’s been a curious non-spectacle, watching a man whose recent political history is widely considered one of failure conduct a visit that had all the trappings of a tiny legacy-building tour in a land of towering, prebuilt legacies.
The Independent has the day-by-day itinerary of the visit, which began in Slovenia, where Bush joined the leaders of the EU and threatened Iran again. It’s doubtful it had much effect. Having entrusted the problem of Iranian nukes to the cream of European diplomacy in obedience to last year’s model of multilateralism, the threat in Tehran has only grown, fertilized by tepid wrist-slaps and ambivalent “warnings” of something or another.
The solution hit on by Bush and the EU: sanctions. That’s the generic solution of course. Other sanctions have been applied before — the U.N.’s Security Council produces sanctions the way Mugabe produces money — but these sanctions would be different because they would be EU sanctions and not U.N. sanctions. At state dinners across Europe, Bush reminded sanguine Europeans, and the BBC, that “all options are on the table.” He was apparently confused by all the little forks and fancy glasses, because nobody believed he meant anything more untoward than banning Ben & Jerry’s from Persia. The end-of-term Bush doesn’t rattle sabres. The biggest threat he could muster, in fact, was “isolation.”
Is shunning a good defense against a nuclear attack by nutty fanatics? It seems a bit underwhelming. We seem to have gone from a policy of preemption to a policy of timeouts in one administration. But using massive amounts of isolation to face down enemies certainly suits the mood of the media here, where journalists have been just exhausted by a war they didn’t actually fight but did have to complain about quite a lot.
Besides, the Europeans, like many Americans who were former vice presidents with Nobel Prizes, are already fighting another war, this one against an enemy they’re sure has far greater potential for destruction than mullahs with missiles: the weather. And Bush lately has left an impression that he’s willing to break out his bullhorn and wage a war on weather with the same ferocity he once promised to wage a war on evil, so for Europeans that issue, usually a cudgel used to beat the U.S. around a little, seems to have evaporated a bit.
Fortunately for the European press, the visit isn’t a total loss. Bush did manage to make some news when the Times, formerly a great paper, snagged an “exclusive interview” with the president. Granted, an interview with Bush must be like interrogating the Mysterious 8 Ball, but the encounter miraculously produced the trope that will define this visit. Bush apologized, not just for himself, but for all of us, for the mean things he has said in the past. For a moment, all the presses in Europe stopped.
Bush seems to have never understood that the biggest war he had to fight was a war of words, and that he’s a unilaterally disarmed kind of guy. So not surprisingly he helped the paper capture a little moment of sorrow, one that might make Donald Rumsfeld die just to have a grave in which he could turn over:
[Bush] expressed regret at the bitter divisions over the war and said that he was troubled about how his country had been misunderstood. “I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric.”
Phrases such as “bring them on” or “dead or alive”, he said, “indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace”
The headline: “President Bush regrets his legacy as man who wanted war.”
Even speaking softly, Bush can’t help but hit himself with his own stick. France is Bush’s next stop, so the French press is already on the story like white on John McCain. Le Figaro had the only proper headline: “Les regrets de George Bush.”
Regrets? We’ve had a few. And mentioning those we have had about Bush will continue to employ many people for many years. His intentions may often have been honorable, and at least he wasn’t Gore or Kerry, but W. certainly left a smudge on most things he touched: education, the budget, the military, trade policies (they still remember those steel tariffs here), the American conservative movement, and its promise of smaller government.
For once, a Le Monde commentary intended to give snide comfort to its dwindling number of elitist readers actually seems to have spoken for many Americans: “Tourner la page Bush.”