By Richard S. Dunham
Four months into his Presidency, George W. Bush has proven to be a durable politician who has taken advantage of low public expectations to maintain impressive job-approval numbers. He's slowly earning a reputation as the Master of Disaster, figuring out a way to harness public anxiety in a way that promotes his own policy initiatives, from tax cuts to oil drilling. But Bush's magic seems to vanish once you leave U.S. territorial waters. Abroad -- particularly in Europe -- Bush is seen not as the Master of Disaster, but a just plain disaster.
I heard that message loud and clear this week in Geneva, home to the World Trade Organization and the international banking establishment, and generally one of the most global cities anywhere. Geneva was hosting the General Assembly of European Press Clubs, an event that drew reporters, diplomats, business executives, and elected officials from around the world.
While the subject of George W. Bush was not on the conference agenda, many people asked American participants if the President was really as unimpressive as European news coverage has thus far indicated.
It quickly became obvious to me that the Big Dubya has some big international image problems as he prepares for his first trip to Europe as President in June. Bush's journey will take him to Brussels, home of NATO and the European Union, and will include his first face-to-face session with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Overseas, expectations for Bush haven't been lower since the 2000 Presidential debates. Here, in brief, are the perceptions Bush must overcome:
He's stupid. European papers have reveled in the President's verbal gaffes. Unlike many Americans, Europeans don't find his slips of the tongue to be endearing. Despite Bush's degrees from Harvard and Yale, Europeans view him as a West Texas Bubba.
He's a lone shoot-'em-up cowboy. Many Europeans see Bush as a product of his Midland, Tex., upbringing. Unlike Bush pere, who built a multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein, Bush fils is viewed as an arrogant guy who "consults" with European leaders only after he has decided what policy he plans to pursue. Case in point: His coveted antimissile shield in space.
He's owned and operated by American oil companies. The Bush energy plan was panned in Europe, where conservation is king. Because Bush and Cheney worked in the oil industry, many Europeans are convinced he is pursuing policies designed to enrich his friends in the oil patch. Bush's out-of-hand rejection of the Kyoto global-warming pact only confirms this Euroview.
He's reliving the cold war in a post-cold war world. The Administration's tough talk vis-a-vis Russia and the recent Russo-American spy flaps have reignited cold war angst from Berlin to Barcelona. Europeans say Bush is looking for strategic military foes when the true international battles are increasingly becoming economic ones.
He's not interested in world affairs. Some Euroskeptics joke that Bush doesn't know Slovenia from Slovakia or the Baltics from the Balkans. Former President Bill Clinton was -- and still is -- popular in Europe, where many people can't understand the American media focus on his private life. Clinton is seen as smart, engaged, and relentlessly multilateral. From the European perspective, Bush suffers badly in comparison.
The good news for Bush? Expectations for him are unrealistically low in Europe. Once again, the President could benefit from "the soft bigotry of low expectations," to borrow one of his campaign phrases. What's more, looking at recent U.S. history, there's another recent President who was viewed by the opinion leaders of Europe as a stupid cowboy and an old-fashioned Cold Warrior. His name: Ronald Reagan, who arguably transformed Europe and the world with his own brand of America-centric leadership -- often with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as his only European sidekick. Bush could do worse. Europeans are convinced that he will.
Dunham, White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau, just returned from three days in Geneva. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht