Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
In the French imagination, Barack Obama is already the president.
To the French, the Democratic primary was the general election.
The word “elite” is not a pejorative here; it’s a compliment. It does not occur to Parisians that Americans will choose the old, white-haired one if they can have the cool, skinny one with the Ray-Bans, John le Carré novels, chic wife and secret cigarettes.
Newsstands carry a whole magazine devoted to “La révolution OBAMA.” The papers are avidly following Obama’s post-Hillary quest to “cherche les femmes,” and on Friday, Le Figaro led with the headline that he had widened his lead over his “rival républicain.”
There was nothing on Le Figaro’s front page about that other American guy who was over here, munching on langoustes at the Élysée Palace with Sarko and the seductress Carla (animated and dazzling with a midnight blue dress and a hopelessly long, thin cigarette).
“You kind of wrote my political obituary tonight,” W. teased the French president after Sarko’s toast Friday night, adding that he still has six months left and a lot of work to do.
In Old Europe, they’ve moved on, assuming that the American president has done all the damage that he can do. The blazing hostility toward W. has faded to indifference and a sort of fatigued perplexity about how les imbeciles de regime cowboy got into office, and how America could have put the world through all this craziness.
Even as the Supreme Court slapped him back for the third time on the suffocation of civil liberties at Guantánamo, President Bush gave the keynote speech of his European farewell tour extolling the virtues of liberty. He celebrated European unity at the very instant it was falling apart, thanks to an Irish donnybrook.
Paris responded with a yawn. (Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to say.) A Bush organizer asked people sitting in the back of the hall to move to the front, so the empty seats would not be visible on TV. The image of the U.S. abroad has improved slightly, according to a new Pew poll, but only in anticipation of seeing the back of this president.
In a way, W. is very different from the cocky, know-nothing, chip-on-his-shoulder “Bully Bush” I followed on his maiden European tour in 2002. His disdain for Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, and theirs for him, was bristlingly clear. He told the bemused French that he’d heard tell from Jacques about their “fantastic food,” and he lectured the bewildered Germans, as though they were thick on the subject, that Saddam was evil because he “gassed his own people.”
This time, he left the heavy lifting on Afghanistan to the more popular Laura Bush, while he hung out with French, German and Italian leaders he likes. “Your Eminence,” he told the pope, “you’re looking good.” Angela Merkel dodged when asked at a press conference whether she would miss W., but said she liked being able to “call a spade a spade with him.” He enthused that “German asparagus are fabulous,” and wryly told a Paris audience that “my hair is a lot grayer,” assuming that the French, with their history of foiled colonialism, would know why. He seemed, all these years later, intent on spiritual absolution.
In other ways, however, W. was not very different. He was still pushing, but more softly, the same refrain that turned Europe so virulently anti-American: his muscular proselytizing that sometimes military power is necessary to break up terror networks, and that there is “a moral obligation” to extend “a more hopeful and compelling vision” of democratic ideals to “provide our security and to spread the peace.”
Europeans overwhelmingly agree with Scott McClellan, the former Bush press secretary, that this approach amounts to “coercive democracy,” and that the administration’s “compelling vision” on Iraq was undergirded with a brazenly untruthful and cynically manipulative propaganda campaign.
On the illicit rush to war, W. ne regrette rien. He reiterated a rhetorical sop to those who yearn for a scintilla of remorse, telling The Times of London that his gunslinging talk made him seem like a “guy really anxious for war,” and that phrases like “dead or alive” and “bring them on” “indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace.”
The Bushes have a hard time with the connective tissue between words and actions. In this case, the words, while dime-store Western, were not the problem. The actions were the problem. W. was really anxious for war. He felt that if he could change Middle East history, he could jump out of his father’s shadow forever.
A Democratic lawmaker who saw the president in the Oval Office recently and urged him to bring the troops home from Iraq quickly recounted that W. got a stony look and replied that 41 had abandoned the Iraqis and thousands got slaughtered. “I will never do that to them,” 43 said.
Sounds like Oedipal déjà vu all over again.