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Bush Boomerang Effect in Europe

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One of the most improbable and unintended legacies of the Bush administration is an emerging generation of European foreign policy leaders that is more progressive than any in decades. They were chosen by new heads of state eager to move beyond the polarizing politics of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. These top diplomats now have the potential to reshape European foreign policy in ways that will reverberate back to Washington.

First came French President Nicolas Sarkozy's choice of renowned humanitarian Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister several weeks ago. Then, last Thursday, newly seated British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tapped rising star David Miliband as foreign minister and former U.N. official Mark Malloch Brown for a cabinet-level slot as minister for Africa, Asia, and the United Nations. Each appointment signals a desire to break from the past, move beyond the shadow of the Bush years, and reassert European influence on the global stage.

Kouchner is a lifelong leftist who founded Doctors Without Borders, pioneered the concept of humanitarian intervention to rescue people from abusive dictators, and led the U.N.'s administration in Kosovo from July 1999 to January 2001. He has argued for "humanitarian first strikes" to preempt genocide and other war crimes. During the French presidential campaign, Kouchner backed Sarkozy's socialist opponent, Segolene Royal. His appointment by the opposite party was interpreted as an olive branch toward liberals, unionists, and socialists at home.

But the trans-Atlantic implications of Kouchner's appointment cannot be seen through a simple prism of right and left. In the run-up to the Iraq war Kouchner defied the official French position and argued for Saddam Hussein's ouster on humanitarian grounds. He was an early voice for what would become Bush's post-hoc rationale for the invasion, that the Middle East needed to be transformed to spread freedom and ward off radical Islam.

While supportive of Bush's war, Kouchner nonetheless inveighed against Bush's methods. He rejected the president as "the least credible spokesman for human rights around." Kouchner's ascent in France signals a foreign policy that will take human rights seriously. His first moves in office--hands-on diplomacy in Sudan over Darfur and calling for a court to try the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri--mark a new brand of French foreign policy: one willing to seize the initiative, accept political risks, and lead. By personifying a hawkish liberal internationalism, Kouchner is living proof that a rejection of Bush-style unilateralism need not be a retreat into isolationism, passivity, or cowardice.

In the U.K., Gordon Brown's ascent after a long, increasingly tense apprenticeship as Tony Blair's Chancellor of the Exchequer marks a sharper break. Miliband, as foreign minister, has pledged "a diplomacy which is patient as well as purposeful, which listens as well as leads." In choosing 41-year-old Milibrand, Brown passed over the more seasoned Jack Straw and his close association with the choice to invade Iraq and, more generally, Downing Street's fealty to Bush under Blair's leadership. Though pundits are speculating about how his Jewish background may be seen in the Arab world, Miliband split from Tony Blair last summer to criticize Israel's attacks on Lebanon.

In putting Mark Malloch Brown in charge of key foreign policy areas, Brown elevated a former U.N. official well-known for tangling with the Bush administration. At a conference last spring, Malloch Brown decried the administration for allowing "too much unchecked U.N.-bashing and stereotyping" and for ceding the public debate on the U.N. to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. John Bolton, then ambassador to the U.N., called Malloch Brown's remarks the worst blunder by a U.N. official in memory. Bolton demanded but never got a repudiation of Malloch Brown's remarks by Kofi Annan. A champion of both the U.N. and of U.N. reform, Malloch Brown has been a staunch critic of the conduct of the Iraq war. A veteran of the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program before being named Annan's chief of staff, he is known as an impassioned advocate of multilateralism in all its forms.

While each of these choices is at some level a repudiation of the Bush-dominated era of geopolitics, they reflect less an anti-Bush dogma than a post-Bush vision. All three men clearly separate their attitudes toward Bush administration policies from their feelings toward the United States. Kouchner has decried French anti-Americanism and even stood up to substanceless anti-Bush sloganeering. In a speech in Washington in early June, Miliband spoke passionately about his own experiences working in the States, issued a stirring call for America's global leadership, and expounded his vision of a revived "green" American dream. Malloch Brown is married to an American and has described himself as "very pro-United States."

While all three have criticized unilateralism and militarism, they also advocate an activist foreign policy. Some liberals in the United States fear that the Iraq war has given a bad name to policies aimed at promoting democracy and human rights. They worry that the U.S. will turn inward and others will shun from a tainted mantle of liberal global leadership. But both Kouchner and Malloch Brown are energetic and values-driven internationalists who are likely to press hard for socio-economic development abroad, the expansion of human rights and even democracy promotion. Theirs is a values-driven internationalism that is as energetic as Bush's, but more collaborative and diplomatic. If successful, these officials could highlight effective ways to promote democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East--and thus restore general credibility to those goals.

Together with their bosses, these men have the potential to reposition Europe's role as a force on global issues, though in what direction is unclear. Sarkozy, a committed Europeanist, played a key role two weeks ago in brokering a compromise that averted the collapse of an EU Summit. Brown, on the other hand, is a confirmed Euroskeptic who reportedly attended EU finance minister meetings only sporadically. Given his bias for humanitarian action, Kouchner seems bound to challenge Europe's traditional reluctance to embroil itself in conflicts outside its borders. Malloch Brown's background suggests that he too may strive to build coalitions to address global hotspots. Whether they prove deft enough to bridge the political chasms and build momentum for more vigorous European global leadership remains to be seen.

In relatively short order, of course, the most important interlocutors for these new officials in Washington will be not Bush administration officials but their successors. Depending on the political persuasions of the next administration, these European foreign policy counterparts may prove a valuable or a vexing part of the Bush legacy.

published in TNR.com