W Goes to Finishing School

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This ought to be good. President George W. Bush arrives in Europe Tuesday, hoping his personal touch will soothe European concerns over his policies on everything from global warming to missile defense. Let's just say they'd better have thought of a Plan B.

In remarkably candid summation, a senior White House official told the New York Times last week that "the common European perception (of President Bush) is of a shallow, arrogant, gun- loving, abortion-hating, Christian fundamentalist Texan buffoon." On top of that, Bush arrives the day after the execution of Timothy McVeigh, and capital punishment in the European mind makes the U.S. something of a moral leper. Still, Bush's aides believe the President's affable persona will disarm European skeptics.

Their role models, of course, are Ronald Reagan and (although they'd never admit it) Bill Clinton, who each, in their own way, personalized their relationship with European and Russian leaders to Washington's advantage. But Europe in the Reagan years was mostly governed by conservatives and lived under the shadow of the Soviet military. Post-Cold War Europe is mostly run by center-left governments that have precious little in common with Bush's conservativism. Moreover, the maturing European Union is beginning to claim an increasingly important diplomatic role for itself, in which deference to the United States is no longer automatic.

President Clinton's ability to persuade and lead the Europeans, despite substantial policy differences, rested primarily on his intellect. The former Rhodes Scholar displayed a legendary ability to grasp and synthesize the arguments of his European counterparts, and to articulate U.S. positions in ways that sought to plausibly address their concerns. The Europeans may have disagreed with Clinton on many issues, but they respected his mind.

President Bush, who famously gushed that his example proves that a C-student (at least a C-student named Bush) could still become President of the United States, will need to get better marks than that if he hopes to persuade skeptical Europeans and Russians to ditch the Cold War arms control framework in order to deploy a hypothetical missile shield against a hypothetical missile threat.

On global warming, a president who has previously been warned by Republican insiders to bone up on policy issues when dealing with wayward senators will face an even tougher task. Having come into power believing this whole global warming thing was a left-wing conspiracy hatched while his family was out of power, Bush in April flatly rejected the Kyoto treaty that the international community had spent the best part of a decade negotiating. Last week, a scientific panel he'd commissioned gave the president some unwelcome findings: Global warming is, indeed, caused by human activity, and that needs to be urgently addressed. But Bush's economic and ideological thinking does not extend as far as mandatory regulation of carbon-gas emissions, which makes it unlikely that he and the Europeans will find much ground for agreement.

On Monday, the President announced new research initiatives and reiterated his complaint that Kyoto's mandatory cuts don't cover the developing world. The Europeans are going to see the latest initiative as a fig leaf, and they're not impressed by the argument over developing countries — after all, the problem today is primarily a result of a century of economic activity, most of it in the industrialized world. The European position, essentially, is that "We made most of this mess; we must take the lead in cleaning it up." The Kyoto framers planned to bring the developing world into the treaty at a later stage.

You have to feel sorry for Bush, of course, because he has, to some extent, been set up. The Clinton administration had participated in Kyoto talks from the beginning, but had no intention of actually putting the treaty before the Senate. And while Clinton never flatly rejected Kyoto, his negotiating positions were essentially attempts to sidestep mandatory emission cuts.

Still, many of Bush's problems are of his own making. He may want to take a lesson from his own turnabout on North Korea. Having come into office with the operating assumption that whatever the Clinton administration did must have been wrong, he had caused a minor diplomatic crisis a few weeks into the job by declaring he had no intention of continuing his predecessor's negotiations with North Korea. Last week, he reversed that position, reportedly under parental guidance. In the same spirit, President Bush may want to recognize that the hostility he faces in Europe is directed not just at his policy positions, but also at the perceived arrogance of a Republican administration, elected by the narrowest possible margin, imagining it can simply negate or ignore everything that happened since it was last in power.

Bon voyage, W. It's sure to be an education.