March 16, 2005


The Pre- and Post-Bush Divide (Andrew Nagorski, 3/21/05, Newsweek International)

A short time ago, the Bush administration's relations with, in Donald Rumsfeld's immortal words, "old Europe" were chilly, cold, in the deep freeze (pick your cliché). Now the U.S. secretary of Defense is disarming his critics by talking about "the old Rumsfeld," exuding sweetness and light. A short time ago, even many members of "the coalition of the willing" were privately oozing pessimism about Iraq. Now, with the new ripples of optimism visible throughout the Middle East, even staunch critics of the war are beginning to wonder if they haven't misjudged President Bush as completely as a previous generation misjudged Ronald Reagan. When it comes to its feelings about the United States, much of the world finds itself veering from one extreme to another—rarely finding more stable middle ground.

There's a lesson in the latest global rethink of Bush's foreign policy, but it's one that goes well beyond the relative merits of the arguments that this administration has been pursuing either a disastrous or brilliant strategy. It has more to do with the fundamental differences between what America is and how it sees its role in the world, and how others—especially Western Europeans and many in the Middle East—view that role, than with the policies of any particular presidential team. Yes, Bush dramatically accentuated those differences in his first term. But the tensions, disagreements and emotions of that period echoed many of the disputes that engulfed previous administrations and undoubtedly will reverberate again in future administrations.

It took an eloquent old-world author, Italy's Luigi Barzini, to put his finger on the key thing that sets Americans apart. Writing in the early 1980s, he explained that Americans believe "that all problems not only must be solved, but also that they can be solved, and that in fact the main purpose of a man's life is the solution of problems." Hence, the audacity of a nation that could resolve to rebuild Germany and Japan, demand the tearing down of the Berlin wall and proclaim the dawn of a new era of democracy in the Middle East. Most Europeans, Barzini noted, believe that life is all about living with unresolved problems, or accepting the fact that many problems take several generations to solve. For them, the American attitude is naive at best and reckless at worst.

Barzini's analysis is both laudatory and cautionary. American impatience to solve problems can produce impressive results, or lead to disasters like the Vietnam War, fueled by a volatile mix of idealism, arrogance and ignorance.

So set against victories over Slavery, Nazism, Communism, and Islamicism we have Vietnam?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 16, 2005 12:00 AM

And Vietnam wasn't even done to solve a problem, but merely to contain it, the typical European attitude.

Posted by: Peter at March 16, 2005 2:54 AM

I don't know about the rest of the world, but one big difference between Canada and the U.S. is that businessmen rarely get into politics up here.

Lawyers, teachers, union agitators -- none of these people believe problems can be solved, and they are the one's who lead our government. The so-called problems actually further their careers.

The U.S. is very different. Businessmen often spend scads of their own money to get into politics.

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 16, 2005 6:30 AM

What else do they have?

Posted by: BJW at March 16, 2005 10:38 AM

Well, business acumen. You know -- management skills and problem solving ability -- the kind of thing that makes you scads of money.

Or am I missing your point, BJW?

Posted by: Randall Voth at March 16, 2005 11:10 AM

In Andy's world only Vietnam counts. It's a silly place.

Posted by: Luciferous at March 16, 2005 4:41 PM