Bush defiant as he prepares for second term

WANT TO make yourself really unpopular in Europe? Just a few words will do it – “Bush is not the anti-Christ”. There, I’ve said it!

American Republican Presidents are never particularly liked in liberal European circles. But ‘Dubya’, who began his second term last week, seems to have surpassed all his predecessors in the unpopularity stakes. A friend said to me recently that he thought George Bush and Ariel Sharon posed the greatest threat to world peace.

Go back 20 years or more and we find exactly the same descriptions applied to another Republican President. In 1982, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire” and cautioned against moral equivocation and the refusal to make clear judgements.

There were those who said Communism posed no threat, to which a commentator retorted that Brezhnev would have been appalled to hear that! Of course, Communism posed a threat. Its ideology was merely a cover for a form of imperialism far more aggressive than anything America has aspired to. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once told an audience of western ambassadors in 1956: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” Was that merely a rhetorical flourish?

Fast forward to 2005. Let me make myself even more unpopular. There is a threat to our freedom from the more extremist quarters of Islamic Fundamentalism. And it’s not just in the obvious forms of Bali and 9/11. Some years ago, I used to go to Speaker’s Corner in London every Sunday. I was appalled and disturbed by some of the Muslim speakers, whose populist mixture of anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism always drew loud applause. The more extreme the pronouncements from the speaker, the louder were the cheers from the crowd. Recently, a Dutch filmmaker, Theo Van Gogh, was killed because he dared to broadcast a film critical of certain Islamic practices and, in Britain, extremist Muslim groups have tried to ban ‘provocative’ advertising near mosques.

So what of Bush?

Bush is clearly no intellectual giant but this does not, in itself, disqualify him from office. American Presidents lean heavily on their coterie of advisers and Bush is well served. We may suspect the motives for the invasion of Iraq, but the spread of democracy can only be a good thing. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” said Bush in his inauguration speech and he’s right. Sometimes, there seems to be a patronising assumption that Arab States are unworthy of democracy.

Recently, I read a book called The Clash of Fundamentalisms by Tariq Ali. The front cover shows George Bush dressed as an Islamic ‘freedom-fighter’ and the back cover shows Osama Bin Laden dressed as the American President. Some of us still reject the tacit implication that they are as bad as each other.

“They’re both killers,” I hear the Bushwhackers say. Yes, but who is more likely to kill the innocent? Some of us also believe that, if a little trepidation and unease has filtered its way through to despots in Tehran and Damascus in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, then that is a good thing.

We have to accept the verdict of the American people. We cannot merely sink into a sulk born of a misguided superiority complex. We complain of the parochial and insular nature of American society but refuse to recognise exactly the same faults in Europe. How many British people could even name the Prime Ministers of France, Spain and Portugal? More to the point, why is New York now safer than London? Why is it that politicians in Britain are unwilling even to consider the ultimate sanction for hideous and barbaric crimes? Maybe Bush is more responsive to the concerns of his electorate than British politicians are to theirs. Or should Americans politicians genuflect only to the will of the liberal Hollywood elite?

We should not assume the worst about Bush’s second term. But, whatever happens, I doubt that many will change their minds about Bush. If there are more terrorist attacks on American soil then his critics will say it is because he has stoked the flames of fundamentalism further by his foreign policy. If there are none then the same people will say that he deliberately exaggerated the threat to pursue his won agenda. And the same people will still think he’s the biggest threat to world peace.