TCS Daily

Careless Whimper

By Dominic Standish - June 8, 2004 12:00 AM

There were predictions of mass demonstrations and harsh criticism for George W. Bush before his three-day visit to Europe to commemorate World War II anniversaries. Although the controversies surrounding the war in Iraq were off-limits during the D-Day ceremonies, leftists organized various protests.

"The Italian anti-war movement expects a massive protest. Mass protests expected in Italy, France," wrote John Catalinotto in the June 10 issue of the Workers World newspaper.

"I hope the American President gets the same welcome in Rome as his colleague Richard Nixon received in 1969," said Luca Casarini, a prominent member of the Italian Disobbedienti organization. Arriving at the height of protests against the Vietnam War, President Nixon was greeted by violent demonstrations.

Many reports in the media anticipated that President Bush would also face violent protests. "Italy Braced for Violence during Bush Visit," ran a Reuters headline by Philip Pullella on June 1. The Italian government deployed 10,000 police officers to prevent disorder. Officials in Rome anticipated a repeat of the violent clashes that marred the 2001 Group of Eight nations' summit in Genoa when one protester was killed by police and hundreds were wounded.

Organizers said the main march in Rome on 4 June involved 150,000 protesters, but police put the crowd at about 25,000. Either way, the turnout was considerably lower than an anti-war protest before the latest Iraq war began, when about one million people marched in Italy. Thankfully, there were no outbreaks of violence this time. Only minor scuffles broke out, leading to two injures, and no one was arrested.

"President Bush's visit has finished positively, even from the point of view of safety and public order," said the Italian Internal Affairs Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu.

The protests in France were even more underwhelming. Activists from the "Movement against War" had predicted that more than 50,000 demonstrators would gather in Paris. Police estimates put the crowd at 12,000. The protestors were peaceful, even though they had been kept well away from the Elysée Palace, where President Bush met French President Jacques Chirac.

While President Bush can take heart from the weak demonstrations during his visit, his support is thin on the ground. An opinion poll on June 6 in Le Journal de Dimanche concluded that 84 percent of the French hope that Bush will be defeated in November's presidential elections. In one poll in Italy last week, 54 percent of those surveyed called President Bush's visit to Italy "inopportune." More than 80 percent of Italians oppose the war in Iraq, according to Time Magazine.

Yet only a very small minority of these Europeans who disapprove of Bush's campaign in Iraq joined the protests against him. Even fewer Europeans who back the war in Iraq publicly demonstrated in support of President Bush. The small public turnout during Bush's European visit reflected the disengagement of most Europeans from the politics of the war in Iraq and, indeed, from politics more generally.

So it was left to the usual suspects to try to put pressure on Bush. Many expected Pope John Paul II to rattle the US president during his audience at the Vatican, following previous statements by the pontiff criticizing the war in Iraq. Roman Catholic voters could be important for Bush in the forthcoming presidential elections. As a bloc, they made up about a quarter of the electorate that split evenly between Bush and Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

The Pope told Bush of his concern about the "grave unrest" in the Middle East. He called for the "speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty" and endorsed the plans to actively involve the United Nations. None of this contradicted Bush's campaign in Iraq and the meeting was "cordial" according to a Vatican statement.

"Such high expectations, and then such leniency. John Paul II did not give Bush a piece of his mind at the audience in Rome," reported Germany's Der Tagesspiegel, with a barely hidden tone of disappointment.

President Chirac's past criticisms of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq are no secret. There were predictions that his meeting with President Bush during this visit could produce problems for the planned UN resolution establishing a framework for returning self-government to Iraq. But Chirac said the negotiations on the resolution "moved forward positively." Agreement was reached on the major issues, with only technicalities on the drafting of the resolution remaining.

President Bush's problems with the campaign in Iraq are far from over. But he benefited from facing remarkably little opposition during this European visit, especially compared with that experienced by President Nixon during the Vietnam War.


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