- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2008

COMMENTARY:

BRUSSELS.

Regime change has transformed the political landscape in much of “old” Europe: Leaders seen as either anti-American, or, at the very least as anti-George W. Bush - Jacques Chirac in France, Gerhard Schroeder in Germany and Romano Prodi in Italy - have been supplanted by three leaders perceived as pro-American, or perhaps, in some cases, even pro-Bush: Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi. Belgium and the Netherlands are moving to the right. Power is rapidly slipping from Britain’s Labor Party.

So, does this turn to the right mean that Europeans are happy to contemplate the prospect of George W. Bush being succeeded by John McCain?

Not according to many recent conversations with a number of Europeans in five countries.

In an emphatic, three-hour discussion, a veteran NATO official with the closest possible ties to the United States, normally a mild-mannered civil servant not known for having a hard edge, literally banged the table - over and over again. Europeans, he said, are seriously scared about the direction in which America is headed. They “don’t think America is still democratic. Ideology and religious fervor have wiped out reasoned discussion. They see it as an increasingly intolerant society where dissent is seen as unpatriotic or blasphemy.”

Europeans, he said, are appalled by the chauvinistic jingoism and religious sectarianism so apparent in the recent American nominating conventions. European politicians don’t wear flag pins in their lapels, and they don’t have their followers screeching “France, France,” or “Nederland, Nederland” the way the Republicans did “USA, USA” when John McCain and Sarah Palin were speaking. After hundreds of years of religious wars followed by 150 years of nationalistic wars, followed by 45 years of the largely ideological Cold War, Europeans tend to see themselves as beyond all that.

In Europe, there simply is no bumper-sticker patriotism. Cars are not emblazoned with flags. There are no stickers telling one another how proud people are to be whatever they happen to be. To Europeans, the nationalistic, ideological and religious fervor they see in Americans is puerile and dangerous. They don’t like fundamentalist religious fervor and political extremism in the Middle East, and they don’t like it any more in the United States.

“America has got to change,” the NATO official said - even shouted - repeatedly, “and John McCain isn’t going to do it.”

The same attitude was reflected in numerous discussions during several weeks with Europeans of widely different stripes. A number said Europeans have lost confidence in the ability of Americans to choose competent leaders. They said that at the time they had seen the 2000 election as an anomaly - because of the peculiarities of the vote in Florida and what they saw as a partisan Supreme Court. But according to a goodly number of Europeans, Mr. Bush’s re-election in 2004 has seriously eroded their affection and regard for Americans. Some questioned the American educational system - citing, among other things, Americans’ widespread disbelief in evolution.

Others expressed bewilderment about Republican attacks on Barack Obama and the Democratic Party for being “elitist.” In Europe, people do not think of the word “elite” as being in any way pejorative. Quite the opposite, they conscientiously seek out people in the “elite” to lead the government. “Elite” in this case, does not mean born rich. But even when political leaders come from the humblest origins - former French President Georges Pompidou, the son of two village school teachers from peasant families, and former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, the son of a carpenter and a house maid, leap to mind - European voters almost always require them to be graduates of the most “elite” institutions of higher learning.

Several asked if it is really true, as news reports here indicate, that ordinary Americans prefer to vote for people who are just like them - somebody they would be comfortable “hanging out” with - rather than for people they can look up to because they have the intellect, judgment, education and experience to understand the problems the country faces and to make good decisions to deal with them.

And then, of course, the conversations inevitably turn to race. Are Americans still so backward, so blinded by racial prejudice that they cannot vote for a black person regardless of how qualified he or she may be? Of course, the obvious response is: How many black, or brown or yellow leaders are there in Europe? Much has been made of French President Sarkozy’s appointment of Rachida Dati - the daughter of a Moroccan immigrant bricklayer and an Algerian mother - to be minister of justice, but she is perhaps the first leading politician in Europe to come from a minority group, unless you count Benjamin Disraeli, Leon Blum, Pierre Mendes-France, et al. - plus Mr. Sarkozy. Of course, Ms. Dati is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature, the “elite” school for training judges. And when that argument is tried, the response is something like, “But what is America supposed to be about? Don’t you think you’re better than that?”

As for Sarah Palin, there were universal expressions of incredulity.

The angry NATO official was, in fact, the only person in weeks of such discussions who saw the need to suggest that Europeans despise a good many American leaders,but still like the American people.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington, D.C., and Florence, Italy.