Despite the bitter rivalries played out in the US and Europe over the presidential election, there seems to be a consensus that the election came down to a referendum on George W. Bush and his War on Terror. Here's a sample analysis, from France's leading newspaper, Le Monde: "It is all about President Bush's 'world war on terror', a concept he has managed to impose as a new mindset."
Both Bush sympathizers and critics have made this argument. And issues of protection and fear are the dominant themes coming out of the presidential election result. For Bush's supporters, his second term will deal a blow to the fear of terrorism. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, spoke of being "glad that the American people have not let themselves be intimidated by terrorists and have made a decision that was appropriate."
Bush's victory has given an important boost to leaders in Europe who have largely supported his foreign policy initiatives, especially Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Berlusconi has staked his leadership on backing Bush's War on Terror. Italian troops joined the US-led alliances in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Italy has become the third biggest contributor to the coalition forces after the US and Britain. Berlusconi's support for Bush in Iraq has been a high risk strategy. With increasing Italian casualties and hostage takings in Iraq, Berlusconi has faced mounting criticism from the government opposition coalition, large demonstrations and European partners. Although Britain has been fully behind Bush's War on Terror, in continental Europe, Italy has stood behind the campaign as Germany, France, Spain and now Poland have wavered.
For those against Bush's position, related policies can only spread further fear and terrorist responses. "I fear the tragedy for all of us is that if America doesn't reach out to its friends, then its enemies will reach out to America," stated Graham Allen, a member of the British Parliament from the ruling Labour Party.
For Bush's European critics, the election victory was the outcome of scaring people into supporting the Bush campaign by mobilizing fearful images through the War on Terror. However, many of these critics seem to have missed the Democratic campaign's use of fear regarding foreign and domestic issues. Democrats stoked up fears that Bush would reintroduce the draft if elected. And Kerry himself cleverly manipulated a panic over a shortage of flu vaccines.
In Europe, the fear over Bush's re-election appeared to override all other concerns. Bush's defeat seemed to be more important than discussing the alternatives presented by John Kerry. There was little discussion of how governments that have been less than supportive of Bush's War on Terror, such as France, would have handled a victorious Kerry asking for contributions to military forces in Iraq.
This obsession with defeating Bush and his War on Terror at all costs illustrates another dangerous trend that has emerged from the US and other recent elections: a vitriolic contest over who is the right candidate seems more important than a wider debate about policy alternatives. Indeed, it seemed that as the policy differences between Kerry and Bush narrowed as the election campaign progressed, the contest became increasingly bitter as a consequence of the lack of substantial political differences.
These issues of fear related to the War on Terror could be highly influential in future European elections. For example, support for Berlusconi from a new Bush administration could be crucial in Italy's next general election, due by May 2006. Berlusconi's domestic popularity seems to be flagging with a weak economy and widespread accusations of cronyism; in seven by-elections held during October Berlusconi's coalition lost everywhere. Berlusconi's challenger will be the outgoing European Commission president, Romano Prodi. Prodi has aligned himself with the dominant European powers as a critic of the US campaign in Iraq and may succeed in depicting support for the campaign as more dangerous than disengagement.
Bush's critics may well be right that his re-election was partially due to using the politics of fear associated with the War on Terror. But what they miss is how fear was also manipulated by his opponents. Indeed, fear has become internalized in Western political and cultural life and the US elections demonstrated how receptive the public is to it, whether it's related to terrorism or health. The question is whether the emphasis on the politics of fear during the election placed limitations on an agenda for broader political change.