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Neocons fret over tilt to Europe

"AMERICA SUPPORTS a strong Europe," George W. Bush told an appreciative audience at his first major European speech in Brussels Monday, "because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom in the world." But many on the right disagree, and the warm words conceal strenuous infighting among conservatives over the shape of the administration's Europe policy.

Gerard Baker, writing in the current Weekly Standard, criticizes the administration's olive branch and warns that Europe is seeking to become a counterweight to the United States in world affairs. The real European goal, writes Baker, is to undermine NATO, America's greatest source of trans-Atlantic influence, and to initiate policies of its own that are less bellicose than Washington's.

A prime example is the joint German-British-French initiative on Iraq, which would offer economic incentives in exchange for Iran's agreement to dismantle nuclear weapons capabilities.

American conservatives have relentlessly disparaged the Iran initiative as naive or opportunistic.

In fact, the initiative is actually making some headway and may spare us a military confrontation. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who provided crucial cover for President Bush's effort to portray the Iraq invasion as the work of a broad coalition, is with the Germans and French this time.

Other neoconservatives take an even darker view of Europe. In National Review Online, Andrew Stuttaford attacks Europe's proposed new constitution as "an unreadable mish-mash of political correctness" and faults Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for being "either delightfully insincere or dismayingly naive."

Some on the right believe that the United States should explicitly oppose Europe's new effort to have a common foreign and defense policy, as antithetical to American interests, and want to actively contain Europe.

Others applaud Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's effort to divide the "new' Europe of former Soviet satellites from the "old" Europe of major states that have been our most steadfast allies except on Bush's dubious Iraq policy. (This divide-and-conquer tactic won't work. It's the new European nations that look most closely to Brussels rather than to Washington.)

European integration has been a core US goal since the Truman administration. President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall blessed the antecedents of Common Market, which eventually became the European Union.

The original policy goal was twofold. First, contain Soviet expansionism. Second, anchor Germany within a larger, democratic European collectivity. The policy worked, magnificently. Europe, viciously divided against itself for centuries, has knit together into a democratic and civil society.

Of course, Europe developed its own social institutions -- universal healthcare, generous retirement systems, free or subsidized child care for working parents, less commercialized and more robust elections, far less extremes of wealth and poverty, less militarism. And much of the world sees this as a more attractive model than the one the Bush administration is promoting. America, statistically, is slightly richer on average than western Europe, but more than 80 percent of western Europeans live better than their US counterparts because our wealth is so concentrated at the top.

How like the neocons to see Europe's success as a menace! In the 1990s, the American right disparaged the project of completing a single European market, and the effort to build trans-European social, parliamentary, and regulatory institutions. American conservatives ridiculed the idea of a common European central bank and currency, but the euro is a phenomenal success and Bush could take some lessons from Europe's fiscal discipline.

It's stunning that the right tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, Old Europe is said to be a naive, force-averse, sclerotic society. On the other hand, it is a growing threat. I hope Secretary Rice is better at warding off neocon influence than her predecessor, Colin Powell, was. And I hope that President Bush's fence-mending is for real. Europe and America need each other.

Europe needs America's strong support as it reaches outward to embrace Turkey, the exemplary nation that is both Muslim and democratic. This is surely consistent with the administration's freedom goals. Europe and America also need to work together to root out terrorism, share operational intelligence, pursue humanitarian efforts, and work out a more balanced economic trade and monetary relationship.

And face it: America also needs Europe, to moderate the worst impulses of the Bush presidency. Let's hope the neocons are right on that score.

Clarification: Last week I faulted politicians for a failure of leadership on national health insurance. I failed to credit one magnificent exception -- Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who called for "Medicare for all" in his National Press Club address last month.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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