SYNOPSIS: Will Bush take responibility for rebuilding Iraq after a possible war? Probably not.
George W. Bush's admirers often describe his stand against Saddam Hussein as "Churchillian." Yet his speeches about Iraq — and for that matter about everything else — have been notably lacking in promises of blood, toil, tears and sweat. Has there ever before been a leader who combined so much martial rhetoric with so few calls for sacrifice?
Or to put it a bit differently: Is Mr. Bush, for all his tough talk, unwilling to admit that going to war involves some hard choices? Unfortunately, that would be all too consistent with his governing style. And though you don't hear much about it in the U.S. media, a lack of faith in Mr. Bush's staying power — a fear that he will wimp out in the aftermath of war, that he won't do what is needed to rebuild Iraq — is a large factor in the growing rift between Europe and the United States.
Why might Europeans not trust Mr. Bush to follow through after an Iraq war? One answer is that they've been mightily unimpressed with his follow-through in Afghanistan. Another is that they've noticed that promises the Bush administration makes when it needs military allies tend to become inoperative once the shooting stops — just ask General Musharraf about Pakistan's textile exports.
But more broadly, they may have noticed something that is becoming apparent to more and more people here: the Bush administration's consistent unwillingness to take responsibility for solving difficult problems. When the going gets tough, it seems, Mr. Bush changes the subject.
Last week's budget is a perfect example. The deterioration in the long-run budget outlook is nothing short of catastrophic; at this point a fiscal train wreck appears inevitable once the baby boomers retire in large numbers. Should we be reconsidering those tax cuts? Should Mr. Bush tell the American people how he plans to cut Social Security and Medicare?
The White House has an easier solution. First, it has conveniently decided that budget deficits are not a bad thing after all. Second, it has stopped making long-run projections, and now looks only five years ahead. And even those projections don't include any allowance for the cost of an Iraq war.
Which brings us back to the war. Mr. Bush apparently regards Saddam Hussein as a pushover; he believes advisers who tell him that an Iraq war will be quick and easy — a couple of days of shock and awe, followed by a victory parade. Maybe. But even if it does turn out that way, is this administration ready for the long, difficult, quite possibly bloody task of rebuilding Iraq?
The Europeans don't think so. In fact, they view Mr. Bush's obsession with invading Iraq as a demonstration of why he can't be trusted to deal with what comes next.
In the United States it is taken as axiomatic that America is a country that really faces up to evildoers, while those sniveling old Europeans just don't have the nerve. And the U.S. commentariat, with few exceptions, describes Mr. Bush as a decisive leader who really gets to grips with problems. Tough-guy rhetoric aside, this image seems to be based on the following policy — as opposed to political — achievements: (1) The overthrow of the Taliban; (2) . . . any suggestions for 2?
Meanwhile, here's how it looks from Paris: France was willing to put ground troops at risk — and lose a number of soldiers — in the former Yugoslavia; we weren't. The U.S. didn't make good on its promises to provide security and aid to post-Taliban Afghanistan. Those Americans, they are very brave when it comes to bombing from 10,000 meters, but they expect other people to clean up the mess they make, no?
And French officials have made no secret of their belief that Mr. Bush wants to invade Iraq not because he is truly convinced that Saddam Hussein is a menace, but because he'd rather have an easy victory in a conventional war than stick to the hard task of tracking down stateless terrorists. I'm not saying they're right; I have no idea what Mr. Bush is really thinking. But you can understand their point of view.
In the days ahead, as the diplomatic confrontation between the Bush administration and the Europeans escalates, remember this: Viewed from the outside, Mr. Bush's America does not look like a regime whose promises you can trust.
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.11.03