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News - The perils of going it alone

Bush-bashing with a European twist



The lines are still long at the McDonald's in Prague's Wencelas Square. A neon sign boldly proclaims Coca-Cola England's favorite soft drink atop London's Piccadilly Square. American music and films still dominate Dutch culture in Amsterdam. But all that is made in the U.S.A. is not to the liking of a growing segment of Europeans — especially U.S. foreign policy.

Traveling Europe recently for the first time since Sept. 11, I was sure tighter security would be in place. But would there be the same gung-ho attitude about hunting down every terrorist Americans overwhelmingly denounce? How would Europeans who snickered at President Bush's election view him now as the leader in the battle against terrorism?

To my great surprise, the state of alert in which Americans now operate was virtually non-existent in the several countries I visited. At Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, a European hub, security was about the same as it has been on a half-dozen other visits: rather lackadaisical. Traveling in Europe from one airport to another, I witnessed no shoe searches, no extra security, no red alerts. Only at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports — and only when returning to the U.S. — did I find anything close to the post 9-11 airport security measures resembling ours.

Publicly, all of our allies in Western Europe are strong supporters of our war on terrorism. But there seems to be a major disconnect between the leaders and the people. Not only is there no fear in the streets of Europe, Bush's policies seem to be as much under attack as al-Qaeda.

In England, an intense battle wages within Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party over Bush's likely attack on Iraq. Closer to a Clintonian liberal, Blair has, since 9-11, become an unlikely partner with Bush, much to the chagrin of a growing segment of his own party. Blair could risk his political livelihood if he sides with Bush on an Iraq incursion.

All over Europe, doubts about Bush's leadership come in sharp contrast to the strong support he's receiving here. Even in Italy, Spain and France, with conservative leadership at the helm, the direction of Bush's international policies is the subject of strong criticism. Europeans resent Bush's "my way or no way" philosophy.

It's as if the U.S. has become the supreme power on the planet and all those Americans, no matter what their political leanings, are in for a debate in every European pub, social gathering or casual conversation. I found myself telling people: "Wait a minute, I'm not George Bush, didn't vote for him and actually thought his party stole the election."

No matter. Italians, French, British, Dutch, Czech, Germans, Scandinavians — all have rather negative opinions of the Bush presidency and tend to engage Americans with a barrage of probing questions.

It's not as if Europeans have no sympathy for those killed in the 9-11 attacks. I frequently was told how sorry folks were for the senseless death and destruction. But I was also reminded time and again that Europeans had witnessed more than their fair share of bombing, terrorism and war.

I also didn't come away from my three weeks in Europe feeling any groundswell of support for our unequivocal support of Israel.

"There has to be a broader discussion in the world community," said a Czech doctor, pointing his finger at me, puffing on a Marlboro and sipping a Coke as the music of Atlanta's own India Arie played in the background. "America can't treat the rest of us like brainless wimps."

To many Europeans, their voice on life-and-death matters is being ignored. They blame Bush — and to a greater extent, all that is powerful in the United States.

It's not that Americans heading abroad this summer won't find a warm reception. But unlike years past, all things U.S.A. won't be so gently overlooked.

Tom Houck has traveled extensively in Europe and, after a pint or two, is always up for a heated political discussion.??



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