Veni, Vidi, Vici?

Protesters didn't win in London; but neither did Bush.

Tue Nov. 25, 2003 3:00 AM EST

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial last Friday with the headline "Bush Conquers London," arguing -- nay, crowing -- that the president's visit to Britain "will go down as one of the most memorable of his tenure." Bush's visit, the Journal said, contrary to what his many British and American detractors had predicted, "will be remembered for the speech he delivered Wednesday in which he eloquently laid down the principles behind the war on terror, and especially the Iraq portion of that war."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Even discounting for conservative hyperbole, the mere fact that this verdict is even plausible is a measure of the degree to which predictions about the visit were confounded, and the high expectations of the anti-Bush protesters frustrated. Hundreds of thousands of protesters were supposed to show up to shame Bush and Blair and show the world that the British people opposed their own leadership in its allegiance to the United States; the made-for-TV toppling of Bush's effigy in London's Trafalgar Square was meant to become an indelible icon of people-power and the anti-war movement; and the visit was predicted to plant a "kiss of death" on Tony Blair's prime ministership. None of this quite came to pass, as the Journal gloatingly notes.

"To be sure, the protesters were out as the President spoke, though not as many as predicted--only 70,000 by London bobbies' count. Mr. Bush was also greeted with some vicious press commentary, though again hardly universal. ...

Many, including some of Mr. Bush's admirers, predicted his British trip would be a public-relations debacle. But with so much of the world watching the visit has proven instead to be a great opportunity to explain the moral purposes of what the President and Mr. Blair are attempting in Iraq. His critics have yet to offer anything close to a competing vision."

Bush supporters in Britain -- they're more numerous than you might think -- have tended to argue that the country's vocal anti-Bush faction is, as the Economist recently put it, "far from representative, as well as dead wrong." Gallingly for the president's opponents, this view gained some backing from an unexpected quarter on the eve of his visit. The virulently anti-Bush Guardian published a poll finding that: public opinion in Britain is overwhelmingly pro-American, with 62 percent of voters believing that the US is "generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world"; only 15 percent of British voters agree with the idea that America is the "evil empire" in the world; and opposition to the war has slumped by 12 points since September to only 41 percent of all voters. At the same time those who believe the war was justified has jumped 9 points to 47 percent of voters.

And not all of the press commentary was "vicious." The conservative Daily Telegraph was full of praise for the president's big speech, calling it "the boldest challenge to the conventional wisdom of the British and European elites since Woodrow Wilson preached the rights of self-determination of smaller nations after the First World War."

And William Rees-Mogg, the Grand Old Man of the London Times, said that Bush "returned to the United States with a diplomatic success and, inevitably, a better understanding of the balance of British opinion. The President demonstrated that he was a serious and thoughtful man, and not the Texan cowboy of tabloid cartoons."

In short, most conservative commentary, in Britain and the U.S., judged the president's visit a great success. (In truth, this may be a function of low expectations: such a public relations Armageddon was predicted for Bush's visit that anything short of widespread looting and rioting had to be viewed as a win for the administration.) The view from the Left, as you'd expect, was quite different. Maria Margaronis, for example, one of The Nation's London editors, was conceding nothing:

"Far from an affirmation of friendship, the visit felt to Londoners--even to many who did not oppose the war--like an assertion of absolute, arrogant power. ...

His big speech before an invited audience of foreign policy specialists set out his "three pillars of peace and security" in terms tailored to appeal to a European audience, with nods to the importance of international institutions and the need for concessions by Israel. But the real message was that America will stop at nothing to impose its will on the world: "We have...a power that cannot be resisted--and that is the appeal of freedom to all mankind."

So far, so tenable; but then this:

"Meanwhile, more than 110,000 people came out to protest against Bush on a Thursday afternoon (the organizers' figure is 200,000)--a demonstration second in size only to the February one that drew over a million. ...

Someone had poured red ink into the Trafalgar Square fountains so that the water looked like blood; a giant papier-mâché statue of George Bush with a tiny Blair in his pocket was raised and then pulled down at the foot of Nelson's Column. There were costumes and painted faces and plenty of Americans; a young man in a suit carried a placard that read "Business Against Bush"; someone had written "Bush Go Home" in pretzels."

Sad to say, this kind of thing speaks for itself. Pretzels? Painted faces? Come on. And the observation, meant to be affirming, that "more than 110,000 people came out to protest against Bush ... a demonstration second only in size to the February one that drew over a million" unintentionally captures what the protesters were up against: by any reckoning, 110,000 is a good turnout -- by any reckoning, that is, except the huge, world-changing expectations aired by protest leaders, against which it starts to look like a flop.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that any failure on the protesters' part is a gain for Bush, and vice versa. But a case can be made that neither Bush nor his opponents "won" in any meaningful sense. Oddly, the best case against Bush's visit as an unqualified success is made by a conservative. Former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, argues on his blog for the National Review that Bush didn't come out of this visit a winner, and for quite different reasons than the ones offered by Margaronis.

"I truly wish I could have returned from the United Kingdom to tell you that all my fears were misplaced, and that the president’s state visit was an absolute triumph. But the Journal has confused what ought to be true with what actually is true.

But – and here’s the catch – the reason for the comparative quiet was that Bush and Blair surrendered the streets of London to the radicals. The original plan for the visit contemplated that Bush would drive in a royal coach down the Mall from Buckingham Palace to Whitehall. It contemplated an address to Members of Parliament. Tens of thousands of cheering schoolchildren waving British and American flags would also have been nice.

Instead, Bush was sealed away from London for his entire visit. ...

By agreeing to let the President be bottled up inside the palace, the trip’s planners reduced the risk of confrontations – but only by broadcasting to the British public their tacit acknowledgement that the visit was unpopular and unwelcome."

Thomas L. Friedman -- no conservative, but hardly a lefty either -- makes a similar point in his New York Times column on Sunday, in which he describes the disappointment of a group of "Marshall scholars," Americans studying in Britain on a grant from H.M. government, when told that Colin Powell, citing security concerns, had pulled out of a speech he was supposed to give at a dinner in their honor.

"Bin Laden is supposed to be on the run — not us. What good is driving bin Laden into a cave if our secretary of state has to live in a bubble? When Mr. Powell can't deliver a speech in London — London — then why travel anywhere? And if diplomats can't travel or circulate, then diplomacy becomes virtual. And virtual diplomacy leads to virtual allies and virtual allies lead to no allies at all. If communities of shared values can't share their values, where are we? ...

The events of 9/11 were a new and dangerous form of terrorism — "terrorism not meant to stimulate political concessions but to destroy our way of life," notes John Chipman, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. We had to react, but we must stop overreacting. Terrorists win when they prevent us from enjoying and spreading our values. We defeat them not just by how we react, but by how we don't react."

It's plausible, then, to look at Bush's visit as at least a partial failure not because of what protesters did, but because of what the president didn't do. Here's Frum, again.

"By eliminating from the president’s schedule events with any touch of spontaneity or public contact, the trip planners made the president look as if he could not or would not engage with ordinary British people. Unless you see it, you can hardly believe the incredible feebleness of the American communication effort in the UK.

Nobody helps a country or serves a president by denying the existence of problems. In Great Britain, the United States has a problem, a big one – and it was made worse, not better, by this recent visit."