A specter is haunting europe. An erratic foreign leader, bellicose in his rhetoric, directing a powerful army, spending freely on new weapons, is thumbing his nose at the international community and raising the chance of war in the Middle East. Step forward George W. Bush. That's how the U.S. President wants the world to see Saddam Hussein. But it's what a lot of U.S. allies are saying, or muttering, about Bush himself.
This week Vice President Dick Cheney starts in London before flying to 11 countries in the Middle East to present the American view of the terror war's next phase. Remarks by Bush and stories planted by his aides make clear that Saddam Hussein is very much in Washington's sights, even though he has not so far been linked to Sept. 11. But when, how, and even whether the U.S. will pull the trigger is still a mystery, perhaps as much in Washington as anywhere else. "We're now fairly certain that the Americans want to press on with Iraq," says a British official. "What is totally unclear is what that means."
If a land invasion is required to accomplish the "regime change" the Bush Administration seeks, many months will be required to assemble troops, replenish stocks of precision bombs and redirect the intelligence assets now deployed to Afghanistan's shooting war. But European governments are already anxious about Bush's intentions a fear of unforeseen consequences that has only been sharpened by the death last week of two German and three Danish peacekeepers who were defusing a missile in Afghanistan, and the participation of some 200 special forces from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany and Norway, and flyers from France, as American ground troops led an assault on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces near Gardez.
In fact, Bush's conduct of the Afghan war has won high marks as measured and effective all over Europe. European leaders point to that when critics fume that Bush is about to go off half-cocked in Iraq to complete the job his father flubbed in the Gulf War. But lately, that reassuring example has been obscured by a blizzard of Bush words and deeds that strike many Europeans as tone-deaf or worse: lumping North Korea, Iran and Iraq in a (speechwriter-coined) "axis of evil"; the disdain for the Geneva Conventions shown in the early treatment of prisoners at Camp X-Ray; his repudiation of the Kyoto climate accords in favor of voluntary compliance by U.S. industry; a refusal to lean on Israel, or even to engage deeply in the peace process, for six months as violence has soared; and his decision last week to set tariffs on steel imports, which violate trade rules, to score domestic political points even though Bush's approval ratings are still stratospheric. The tariff move, on top of Bush's other unilateral steps, "is a huge, huge, huge error," says a British official, because it undercuts U.S. moral leadership just as Bush needs it to draw allies to an unpopular fight.
The awkwardness is particularly acute for Tony Blair, who since Sept. 11 has made a point of backing Bush at every opportunity. The transatlantic bridge he has labored to build and bestride has become too wobbly to bear his weight gracefully. A former aide to Bill Clinton says that Blair "is a little like Vladimir Putin: he hasn't gotten much for his westward drift." Labour backbenchers are roiling as M.P.s beyond the usual antiwar suspects signal strong opposition to an Iraq war. Claire Short, the International Development Minister, has said privately she will protest in the streets if Iraq is bombed. But like a monk who believes self-flagellation is the path to salvation, Blair said last week he thinks Bush is right to focus on foiling Saddam's effort to procure chemical, biological and atomic weapons. French and German officials did not go so far, but they too tried to sand down talk of transatlantic rifts.
Bush may overestimate how likely the allies are to follow a strong U.S. lead, but he has one great strength in a campaign to win European opinion: he is right on the core issue. Saddam is pursuing dangerous weapons, and getting better at beating sanctions. Downing St. says a detailed indictment is being prepared. Will it contain enough incriminating intelligence to make it persuasive? And can George Bush learn to speak European well enough to sell it?