Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Clinton Offers Little Sympathy to Europe's Bush-Bashers

In this week's installment of his weekly column for the International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur describes how a decent American disappoints Europe.
With Europeans lining up and shelling out to read Bill Clinton, he turns out to be a guy who insists on reminding people that two-thirds of the Democratic Party in Congress voted George W. Bush the specific powers he needed to make war in Iraq. Then, piling it on, he goes and says that France and Germany wrongly made light of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

No Michael Moore, this Kid from Hope. And for some Europeans, including a few who invested massive sums in serializing or publishing his autobiography, My Life, not much support either from Clinton for the political notions they may have thought they were buying into with the book or from the Clinton interviews that have accompanied the package.

For Der Spiegel, the Hamburg newsmagazine that has never found an American president subtle enough to match its tastes, this was clearly a problem as it completed its second installment of extracts. In its table of contents last week, it announced a conversation with the former president about "Bush's Iraq debacle."

In the headline over its interview, it promised Clinton's take on "the Disaster of the Bush Administration in the Iraq War."

As it turned out, the single time the word "debacle" came out of anybody's mouth in the Q-and-A, it belonged to the Spiegel people asking Clinton questions. The former president verbally sprinted in the other direction.

It was this kind of whoosh: Clinton said his successor was now moving toward a turnaround in Iraq that might take two to five years to achieve. In Clinton's view, sovereignty was being returned to the Iraqis, a new UN resolution had been passed, and the Iraqis were freeing the Americans from having to decide on everything. …

Although you couldn't tell from the magazine's promotional material or headlines, Clinton also took pains to recall why the Democrats had backed Bush's request for war powers and, with it, to criticize the French and German attitude at the time, which he said would not have supported the use of force even if Saddam had refused to cooperate with the United Nations.

Clinton told Spiegel that whatever the state of the Iraqi Army, he didn't agree "with the German and French position that Saddam never did anything that he wasn't forced into" and "didn't constitute a threat."…

This is a long way from the line of anti-Bush Europe's current decent American, Michael Moore, who repeatedly thanked the French and the Germans for their Iraq stance while promoting his film attacking the president.

In fact, for Europeans irritated these days by anything that sounds like an American's support for a non-capitulationist view of the United States' self-interests, Clinton's approach may have come as disappointingly as John Kerry's when he pounced on José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero's Spain for pulling its forces out of Iraq, and urged the Europeans to share the mission's risks and burdens.

The issue here is not Bush, whose admirers in Europe are squad-sized rather than legion. It is rather that Clinton's bottom line on America's world role — like that, as well, of virtually all the mainstream foreign policy players in Washington — may not jibe with the America that Spiegel, or Le Nouvel Observateur in France, another investor in his memoirs, or many of their readers, say they want to love.

"Bill Clinton was a great president," the French magazine wrote. "A cool president for a cool epoch. When the Net-economy propelled growth and melted unemployment. When the American hyperpower didn't deviate into autistic unilateralism." … In fact, Clinton specifically told Spiegel that when it must, America has to be able to deal with events alone (although acting in cooperation with friends is obviously preferable). …

[Here's another of Vinocur's Reality checks.]
Because there is considerable concern among European politicians and the media of being seen as anti-American rather than anti-Bush, which is as easy here as kicking a can, the publication of the memoir looked to some as a good chance, via Clinton, to be publicly counted among the Friends of a Well-Behaved America.

The most conspicuous revisionist among these was Hubert Vedrine, who as French foreign minister spent considerable time saying that Clinton's America was a country indulging in "inadmissible" unilateralism. This, he said, had to be contained by other countries working together to save the world's "mental identity."

France's task in gathering blocking groups to hold Clinton's America in check was of such importance that, like Marcus Aurelius laying out Stoic principles for political action, or Che Guevara defining the revolutionary struggle from the Sierra Maestra, Vedrine actually made up a list of five precepts (like having solid nerves and perseverance) for the undertaking.

Now, with the book out and Bush's defeat a possibility, Vedrine describes Clinton as a president "who succeeded wonderfully on all levels" and who made the American "hyperpower" both "likable and seductive." In contrast to Bush's, he suggests, Clinton's world was a pleasure to deal with.

But this goes only so far. Vedrine rejected Clinton's assertion accompanying the book's publication that Yasser Arafat's unreliability had been the essential cause of the failure of the Camp David accords between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians.

"Clinton is loading this on Arafat because, however brilliant Clinton is, he remains an American politician," Vedrine said. "He's a bit constrained on this point."

Nudge-nudge. Vedrine is not only saying that dark forces, which he is too discreet to name, run American Middle East policy, but that Clinton was not being forthright about a critical moment of recent history.

This is a French vision, like others in Europe involving American motivations on various subjects, that even when larded with flattering phrases essentially demeans Clinton and other presidents, or presidential candidates, for defending American notions of what is both just and in the interest of the United States.

If Clinton, from his spotlight of the moment, persists these days in saying a lot of things some Europeans would prefer not to hear, the explanation may come down to his being, very irretrievably, like Bush or Kerry, just another American. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest figures count 282,421,906 of them.