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EDITIONS
Saturday, 18 January, 2003, 11:50 GMT
Gulf divides US and Europe
George Bush
Many Americans support Mr Bush's stance against Iraq

We were in Minneapolis visiting a diner. David, butterfly tattoo on his neck, was tossing the burgers.

We had introduced ourselves politely with that British accent that Americans sometimes make you feel rather self-conscious about.

George Bush and Tony Blair
Americans are thankful for British support
"You Brits are welcome any time," David bellowed with good cheer. "You're the only friends we have. We love your Mr Blair."

There was a muffled chorus of approval from the assembled diners. "Saddam Hussein is Adolf Hitler," David added for good measures, prompting more nods.

I got a similar response from one of the men who unpacked our boxes when we moved into our new house in Washington the other day.

Rod from New Jersey shook my hand, squeezed my arm like an old friend, and said, "If it weren't for your Tony Blix, where would we be today?"

British support

I assume he meant the British prime minister, not the Swedish weapons inspector.

Those Americans who like George Bush and his policy towards Iraq - and that is still more than half the country - are genuinely thankful for the support shown by the British Government.

But what they don't know, what they could not know - unless they read the occasional article in the New York Times or the Washington Post - is that the people of Britain and Tony Blair's own party have significant misgivings about this unstinting support.

The Atlantic is today wider than ever, and the president's mantra that America and Europe share the same values sounds rather hollow

There is also no suggestion that support comes at a price, that Tony Blair has extracted from George Bush promises about the Middle East peace process for instance. But this is no time for nuances.

As President Bush said after the 11 September attacks, "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists." It is a view held by a majority of Americans and it divides the world into friends and foes.

I met a senior German diplomat the other day whose life has been made a misery ever since Chancellor Schroeder used his opposition to the Iraq war to clinch the votes he needed for re-election.

"Traitor" shouted much of the American media, and the White House refused to send its statutory telegram of best wishes. Even today, Berlin and Washington are barely on speaking terms.

European misgivings

My parents live in Berlin and when they came to visit us at Christmas, I asked them how they felt about Chancellor Schroeder and his rejection of the war. "He did the right thing, the only right thing," they both agreed.

Perhaps most Americans don't remember why Germans are squeamish about wars. On the other hand, most Europeans don't appreciate just how much 11 September has changed this country.

Mark Thomas protests against an attack on Iraq
There have been anti-war demonstrations across Europe
They look at the forest of flags outside houses and office buildings and they cringe. Americans have always had a far more intimate relationship with their flag than most Europeans. Now it is a passionate love affair.

When we arrived last summer, one of our neighbours - a lawyer - hoisted a large Stars and Stripes outside his house every morning and lowered it at sunset.

Bob was meticulous and unembarrassed about his private flag-raising ceremony, as if he was watering plants or pruning his roses. That is because everyone else on the street was doing the same.

One day he walked over to me. "Tell me Matt, why do so many Europeans hate us so much?" "Nonsense," I said, wondering if I too would be asked to salute the flag.

On 12 September 2001, Le Monde went into mourning on its front page and declared: "We are all Americans." But the groundswell of sympathy has turned into a backlash of anti-Americanism.

The Atlantic is today wider than ever and the president's mantra that America and Europe share the same values sounds rather hollow.

Even before 11 September, the Bush administration trampled on European sensitivities by opting out of the Kyoto protocol, the war crimes tribunal in the Hague and by insisting on missile defence and steel quotas.

Double standards from the world's only superpower, shouted the Europeans.

And then came Iraq. Virtually every cartoon in a European newspaper portrays Bush as a reckless gunslinger. His language and his cowboy boots complete the cliche.

Anti-Americanism

Opinion polls still indicate that ordinary Europeans are less anti-American than the politicians who represent them. But how long before the windows of McDonalds are shattered in Stuttgart, or Barbie is hung from a lamp post in Milan?

US troops
British and US troops have been heading to the Gulf
The symbols of America are far too ubiquitous to go unnoticed.

This country's relationship with the rest of the planet is in the process of being redefined. Much depends on Iraq.

If there is a war, if it is quick with minimum casualties, if it is followed up by the rebuilding of a nation, if it doesn't ignite the rest of the Middle East in a blood bath, President Bush may well be hailed as a latter-day Churchill without the best-selling speeches.

But these are big "ifs". And then there is North Korea, Iran and the never ending war against terrorism - the unseen enemy that haunts our lives.

Have we become an empire? The New York Times dared to ask in its magazine the other day. Has the soul of our republic been quashed by the demands of security? Keep listening.


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06 Jan 03 | UK
05 Aug 02 | UK
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