- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

LONDON. — When I passed Buckingham Palace late Tuesday, George W. Bush’s helicopter had already slipped in, almost unnoticed. Around the gates, the police officers came close to outnumbering bystanders. The first evening of the presidential visit had passed without incident.

If the anti-Bush protesters were disappointed not to get a glimpse of their prey, another of their favorite hate-figures emerged a few blocks away at the Old Vic Theater. Richard Perle was taking part in a debate on the War on Terror, jointly organized by the Economist and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I went along looking for enlightenment but left disappointed. Not because Mr. Perle had nothing interesting to say — on the contrary, he is always witty, provocative and well-informed — but because the opposition was so lame.

A human rights lawyer uttered stale pieties about Guantanamo Bay, a retired diplomat reeled out the cliches that urbane Foreign Office Arabists have been peddling for decades. The contributions from the largely twentysomething audience, full of slogans and half-digested disinformation, were even less inspiring. Mr. Perle soldiered on, like a patient teacher confronted with a class of dunces. Yet, as he slumped deeper into his seat, his body language seemed to be saying, “Why am I wasting my time?”

I wouldn’t blame him for feeling discouraged. After all, he had a right to expect to face some intelligent questions. Americans have traditionally thought of Britain as a civilized land where, when they’re not groping around in pea-soup fog, the local citizenry engage in discussions on geopolitics and the latest Churchill biography. Sadly, it isn’t true.

One of the great, unacknowledged lessons of the months since September 11, 2001, is that the British actually know next to nothing about the United States, its history and its institutions. Nor are they particularly knowledgeable when it comes to world affairs in general. They prefer to believe what Michael Moore tells them.

This has come as a painful surprise to most of my American friends. As they have discovered in the last couple of years, the Brits are eager to point out that their cousins across the pond are insular dolts, obsessed with showbiz and sports rather than the intricacies of the Middle East. Most Americans, they sneer, could not even find Iraq on a map. No wonder they elect a president as dim as George W. Bush. And so on, and so on.

The same refrain rings out at dinner parties all over the land. Sometimes the speakers are Labor supporters, sometimes they are Conservatives. But the message is always the same. Trust me. I have heard it so long I can recite it by heart.

All this generates a warm glow of cultural superiority in the average Britons. They ignore the inconvenient fact that, thanks in part to years of declining educational standards, their own countrymen are in no position to disparage anyone.

Being a nation of positive thinkers, Americans tend not to be aware of this fact. And it explains a crucial flaw in the way the U.S. handles its relations with Britain. Americans assume the British understand what makes them tick, and that they share the same notions of what it takes to advance and defend liberal democracy.

Equally, British people think they are pretty well-informed about America. But when you scratch deeper, you find that usually means they know the names of the lead characters in “Friends” and how many gunmen there were on the grassy knoll during the John F. Kennedy assassination. It is all too easy to mistake knowledge of popular culture for knowledge of the country itself.

When it comes to promoting values and objectives, American spokesmen make the mistake of thinking the audience speaks the same language. Democrats as well as Republicans have fallen into that trap, but the consequences for the Bush administration are more serious, if only because the president’s Texan persona seems so alien to people here.

Just the other night, on a current affairs show, I heard a Westminster politician sneer at Mr. Bush’s “Jacksonian” worldview. Most British viewers — even the educated ones — probably assumed she meant the leader of the Western world likes listening to “Billie Jean.”

The result is that the U.S. has not even begun to engage with the British public. As the staunchly pro-American columnist Melanie Phillips pointed out recently: “The Americans have been going round in a kind of bubble. … If they had bothered to look closely at what has been going on in Britain, they would have seen that the country has been engulfed by a rising hysteria about the U.S. and Bush: an irrationality and complete breakdown in logic, common sense and moral reasoning from September 11 onwards.”

Forget most of the talk about an outpouring of sympathy after September 11, 2001. Forget about the band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Changing of the Guard. Liberal commentators like to blame Mr. Bush for supposedly squandering all that good will. It pains me to say it, but I have not been able to detect very much good will in the past 2 years. America is losing a battle, and it doesn’t even realize it has a fight on its hands.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London and is a media fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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