Rupert Cornwell: A chasm of mutual incomprehension

What to us are Bush's mere self-delusional platitudes draw vast applause

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It was all smiles when Angela Merkel came to the White House yesterday - and no wonder. As far as the Bush administration is concerned, a key European ally is back in the fold. Good riddance to that frightful Chancellor Schröder, who trashed us to win an election, broke his word over Iraq and, retired from politics, has sold his slippery soul to a Russian energy company.

Thank goodness for this unflashy and trustworthy lady, this "German Thatcher" with her sensible trouser suits, who means what she says. Having been reared in the old East Germany, she at least really understands why we Americans keep banging on about freedom, democracy and the glory of the markets. To which one replies, if only it were that simple.

Ms Merkel's election victory may have been another step towards healing the divisions between "Old Europe" and the US. But a change of government in Germany on its own will not mend those differences. To her credit, the lady herself has not pretended otherwise. A few days before her arrival she said that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be shut down.

Earlier still, she had caused a diplomatic flap by saying that Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, had admitted in a private meeting that the US had made a mistake when it abducted the German citizen Khaled Masri. Now everyone knows this administration does not admit mistakes (though President Bush has of late showed a few flashes of mortal humility). But Washington seems ready to put up with some criticism from its German friends, now that the detested Mr Schröder has departed the stage.

Again, alas, it is not so simple. Take Iran . For the moment Europe and the US are marching in lockstep. For the moment, Washington has curbed its more belligerent instincts. It seems certain that the matter will now go to the UN Security Council.

Maybe that will do the trick. But it probably won't, in which case some form of US/Israeli military action will become ever more likely. In that case, I would bet that Europe and the US will diverge, just as they did three years ago over Iraq - and this time Britain will not be on the American side.

But even if Europe and the US manage to finesse a showdown over Iran, the road to restoring the trans-Atlantic relationship of old will not run smooth. The end of the Cold War has laid bare even deeper differences. To understand them, I commend a little known publication of the US Army called the Military Review, and the 5,000-word essay by Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British officer who spent a year in Iraq, working closely with the Americans in the training of Iraqi security forces. It is an astonishingly blunt critique, and huge credit to the Pentagon for running it.

The headlines have understandably been made by Aylwin-Foster's charges that US cultural insensitivity in dealing with ordinary Iraqis amounted to "institutional racism", and that its armed forces - peerless at fighting conventional wars - were not much good at the more subtle counter- insurgency operations required in Iraq. But he makes other, more fundamental points. His topic is war, not peace. But does anything say more about the character of a country than the way it wages war?

Alywin-Foster had a privileged insider's vantage point. But what he says is instantly familiar to any European living in the US. He writes of how America's "can-do" approach to life - that most refreshing and utterly un-European belief that no problem is too tough to solve - also creates a perennial and ultimately damaging optimism. Subordinates have been discouraged from reporting bad news, a pervasive unreality set in. Hence, for instance, the disparity - evident even now - between the rosy assurances of the US brass about the insurgents being on the run, and the daily flow of dreadful news from the front.

The other trait he singles out is the exceptional patriotism of the US military. This too is admirable. It breeds a discipline, esprit de corps and sense of mission and duty that no other fighting force on earth can match.

But it also breeds a sense of moral righteousness, which can all too easily become a conviction that the US and its values are morally superior, that America can do no wrong. "Old Europe" could not be more different. Its own patriotism does not extend much beyond the national football team. Nor can Europeans, be they old or new, feel much patriotic attachment to a Europe that primarily defines itself by its differences from the US.

The reaction here in the US also speaks volumes. One high ranking American staff officer described Aylwin-Foster as "an insufferable British snob", while Donald Rumsfeld (who coined the "Old Europe" appellation) claimed not to have read his offending piece, but ventured that it might be based on wrong information. In fact, the brigadier with the double-barrelled name is spot on.

You needed look no further than President Bush's visit on Thursday to the two states devastated by Hurricane Katrina, to see what he meant. Bush, of course, employs the optimistic, super-patriotic style of leadership more than any of his predecessors. But, to some extent, every US President does it. It is the American way.

In his speeches Bush relentlessly stressed the positive. He glossed over the monumental task of reconstruction. Instead, he delivered the usual guff about how Americans possess a generosity and love for their neighbours which no other nation on earth comes near. He predicted that the uniquely resilient American spirit would conquer all. The chasm between his words and the reality of a New Orleans that almost certainly will never be the same again was as wide as that between the words about Iraq and the facts on the ground.

You could never imagine a French President, a British Prime Minister or a German Chancellor talking like this. Yet what to us are mere self-delusional platitudes (yes, here goes another of those insufferable British snobs again) drew vast applause. Bush's audiences are carefully vetted and unfailingly friendly, but deep down he unmistakably strikes a chord.

Yesterday Ms Merkel was a carefully vetted and exceedingly friendly guest in the Oval Office. But behind the heartfelt talk of shared history and values, a certain void will remain. We Europeans and Americans just see things differently.

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