Berlin-John McCain's bizarre response when asked repeatedly about Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero adds to a growing sense here in Europe that if McCain is elected in November, it's time to be afraid, very afraid. Is he out of it or reckless? Both options sound grim.
At least in political science and foreign-policy expert circles, McCain has been well known in Europe for years and has long attracted respect. It was not uncommon in this year of unprecedented European focus on U.S. presidential politics to hear highly respected commentators argue that when it comes to the reality of governing, either a McCain victory or a Barack Obama victory would probably play out much the same on the issues that matter to Europe.
No one is making that argument lately. The Georgia crisis and, to a lesser degree, the selection of foreign-policy neophyte Sarah Palin as a running mate, brought a shift in European perceptions. The prospect of a continuation of the religious-right driven foreign-policy adventurism of the Bush years, starting with a reckless showdown with the former overachieving KGB counter-spy Vladimir Putin over - and maybe in - Georgia, has many queasy.
Obama is seen as something of a question mark, but an eloquent and charismatic question mark whose obvious star power makes him fascinating to watch on the political stage. It's understood that clashes with an Obama administration would loom over such difficult issues as the push for more European soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. But on the plus side, Obama's youth and energy leave room for optimism, whereas McCain shows increasing signs of age-enhanced mental and verbal incoherence (on which group Iran was arming in Iraq, among many, many other topics).
Die Zeit, the highly respected German weekly, was scalding in its evaluation of McCain's convention speech in Minnesota. "He appeared tired, old, pale and without ideas," was the verdict. "McCain couldn't present the case to Americans deeply disappointed by George W. Bush why he -- the aged Republican senator of 22 years -- should stand for change and the future."
Most Europeans are belatedly learning to be careful about assuming Obama will win. They like to mention that if George W. Bush could be reelected, after the American people had caught his act for four years, anything is possible. If McCain wins, running as fundamentally dishonest and dirty campaign as he has so far been running, celebrating ignorance of the world, even as he preens about his credentials in this area, there is no question it will fuel the widespread anti-Americanism that has shown signs of abating in the last year.
It will be entertaining to watch the McCain campaign try to explain away -- or distract from -- their candidate's weird inability to place Spain on the European continent. Was this a calculated snub of Europe -- since snubs of Europe still seem to fire up the type of people who think Sarah Palin is a jim-dandy candidate for VP -- or at least a calculated snub gone somehow wrong, like John Kerry's botched joke? Could McCain truly have been as out of it as it seems? Is he sound of mind? These are fair questions of a man who would inherit so many problems across the board left over from the wreckage of the failed Bush administration.