Report from Europe

Coming to terms with Bush's win

On November 3, Western Europe’s morning papers had only inconclusive results on the U.S. election to report. The following day, there was no getting around the fact of George W. Bush’s victory. The UK’s liberal daily, the Guardian, summed it up with two small words in white against a full-page black background: “Oh God.” Inside, it reported that “we went to bed daring to hope and awoke to the crushing news....George Bush’s victory catapulted liberal Britain into a collective depression.” The front page of Germany’s Die Zeit echoed that disappointment: “The world had wished for another president,” but America chose to stay with Bush.

Some Europeans had seen this coming and had been preparing themselves mentally. Their hope that the “swaggering, confrontational” Mr. Bush might go away were gradually tempered by the possibility of his re-election-and the need to come to terms with it. Increasingly, I met people who had decided Bush was not “dumb,” even though he is not always well spoken. (The intelligence they conceded him, however, was of the Machiavellian sort, hard-hearted and calculating.) Some suggested that even those European leaders who ostensibly opposed Bush might have their own (cynical) reasons for preferring Bush II to a Kerry presidency. On election night, British journalist Andrew Neil said on CNN International that Europe was afraid of Kerry (“Bush with a smile and not a smirk”) because his multilateral approach might pressure Europe to send more troops to Iraq. Fokke Obbema wrote something similar in the Dutch Volkskrant: Given Bush’s unpopularity in France, “if Bush stays, then Chirac doesn’t have to do anything. That’s an advantage.”

The question now, though, is what to make not simply of four more years of George W. Bush but of a center-right America that apparently will hold sway into the foreseeable future. Much is being made here of the “legitimacy” of this election, as opposed to Bush’s popular vote loss in 2000. Europeans must come to terms with the fact that Bush is not an aberration but represents the views of a majority of the American electorate.

Thus far, I have concentrated primarily on Europe’s wariness of Bush’s re-election. But that is not the whole story, nor are supporters of Bush found only in Eastern Europe. Here in the Netherlands, those favoring Bush’s re-election were in the minority, but some of them were found in high places. It is not by chance that the Dutch have maintained thirteen hundred troops in Iraq. Bush gets a particularly sympathetic ear among older citizens here (who lived through World War II) and others worried about terror and immigration.

In the Netherlands, unlike elsewhere, the U.S. election was not the top story on November 2. That morning, the controversial filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh (a descendant of Vincent van Gogh’s brother) was brutally murdered on an Amsterdam street by an advocate of Islamic jihad. Like Pim Fortuyn, the candidate for Dutch prime minister who was assassinated in May 2002, van Gogh was known for his incendiary remarks (unprintable in an American newspaper) critical of Islam. Recently, he joined with another well-known critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch Parliament, in making a provocative film that calls attention to the mistreatment of women by Muslim men, a practice, the film maintains, that is both common and endorsed by the Qur’an. Found on van Gogh’s body (pinned to his chest with a knife) was a note calling for jihad and warning that Ms. Hirsi Ali would also be killed for her hostility toward Islam. The suspect was captured shortly after the murder, and a day later eight other men, all acquaintances of his and fellow adherents of a militant Islamic movement, were also arrested. Since then there have been several more arrests: Hirsi Ali and another member of Parliament, Geert Wilders, have gone into hiding (à la Salman Rushdie), and there have been more than fifteen attacks carried out on mosques, churches, and schools in the Netherlands. This standard-bearing land of tolerance has become hardened and fearful.

These developments are not unrelated to the U.S. election, but exemplify how American leadership and interests are connected with local interests around the world. With terrorism an ever hotter issue in Europe, the problem persists of knowing what to do about it. The hard-nosed, show-of-force approach the United States has adopted under Bush-which some have blamed for the spread of terrorism-may find more sympathy on the continent if terrorist attacks become more prevalent. Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Gerrit Zalm has adopted President Bush’s term “war” (oorlog) to describe Holland’s internal battle with Islamic extremism, to the displeasure of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who prefers the term “struggle” (strijd). Like the French, the Dutch have long favored a nonconfrontational approach to the Arab world and to Islamic immigrants within their own borders. Both believed this was the best policy in general, and the best way to reduce the chance of being targeted by radical Muslims. But confidence in the “soft power” of dialogue and persuasion appears to be breaking down. The French are disappointed that diplomacy has failed to bring French hostages home from Iraq, and Dutch policies on immigration and combating terror seem to be getting more aggressive and better funded by the week. Will more European countries join the “war on terror” and “coalition of the willing,” or is it possible they will demonstrate anew the value of dialogue, tolerance, and international cooperation?

As he did four years ago (“I’m a uniter, not a divider”), Bush has spoken reassuring words about the promise of a shared future. By the end of his first term, though, many Europeans felt they were not full participants in the conversation or in the “shared” future being created. This time out, one hopes the American president’s words will more closely reflect the reality. 

Published in the 2004-12-03 issue: 
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Timothy P. Schilling lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

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