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Sunday, November 28

British pundits get the jump on Americans and why we should care

I'm often asked about the political leaning of my foreign policy team. Here one must be reasonable. If you were a raccoon or squirrel, where would you stand in the political spectrum? On the other hand, one assumes that most in the Green Party can't afford to spend the big bucks on bird seed and peanuts. And because Greens favor a vegetarian diet, you'd be wasting valuable energy breaking into a Green dumpster unless you had a yen for moldy steamed rice.

Putting it all together, I'd characterize the team as pragmatic in their political outlook. However, for a time I did have cause to wonder about the raccoon, who began showing for meetings with a snack wrapped in a piece of a Rupert Murdoch publication.

That is how I came to learn that British pundits who hold forth in the American news media are not entirely frank with their American audience about British opinion. To hear the British pundits tell Americans, all of the United Kingdom stands united with France in finding Bush and his supporters to be babbling idiots marching to fascist doctrine.

But if one reads The Sun newspaper ("Largest circulation in the UK"), it's obvious that a fairly large number of Britons not only admire Bush and his American supporters but also stand solidly behind the US-led war on terror, to include the campaign in Iraq.

Now some might try to argue that UK denizens don't so much read The Sun as look at its pictures, which feature young women in various stages of undress and British male sports stars whose facial expression helps explain why Neanderthal Man became extinct.

Nevertheless, the newspaper-buying public is traditionally an avid reader of editorials and letters to the editor. From that perspective, The Sun's editorial page leaves no doubt that Bush, and the way he wages war on terror, have many supporters in the United Kingdom.

I interject that Americans shouldn't conclude from the above that The Sun's editorial slant is pro-Republican Conservative. It might come as a surprise to Americans to learn that Mr. Murdoch supports Britain's Labor party, although his support for Labor seems "pragmatic." This according to John Batchelor's wasp-tongued, Bush-bashing Leftist Scottish correspondent, John Nicolson. Nicholson sniffs that Murdoch favors Labor simply because the party has done well for the British economy and because Murdoch like all business moguls doesn't favor rocking the boat.

The point, for Americans, is that The Sun's support for Dubya's defense doctrine and foreign policy shouldn't be interpreted as indication that substantial numbers of UK citizens are fans of the Republican Party or the American Conservative agenda. Yet there you have it: no matter what they think of our domestic politics, a large number of Britons support War Dog Bush.

So here we have a mystery, which can't be solved by hurling the label of "Democrat bias" at the American media outlets that give British pundits a platform. No matter what the political bias of the various American news outlets, Americans in general don't know that a significant body of opinion in the United Kingdom supports Bush and his defense policy.

I venture that the solution to the mystery is that the majority of American news producers, editors, and journalists are not very knowledgeable about European politics. That situation has tempted British counterparts with an agenda to peddle on this side of the Pond. To what end?

The American reader should remember (or learn) that while America was plunged into a war on terror, another war was going on. Britons were locked in a bitter debate about adoption of the euro and further integration with the European Union.

The debate continues to rage and if anything has heated up as Britain faces ratification of the EU Constitution. To get an idea of the impact of the debate on British politics, consider this tidbit from the 11/27/04 issue of The Sun:

"Tony Blair threatened to sack Gordon Brown unless he backed the euro, The Sun learned last night. The "Iron" Chancellor refused, wrecking Mr Blair's place in history as the PM who took Britain into the single currency. The Prime Minister backed down -- for the time being. T he latest revelation sheds new light on Mr Blair's plan, revealed in Tuesday's Sun, to sack Mr Brown AFTER the election."

(The plan to sack Brown may or may not be crafty gossip, but Brown indeed helped lead the charge to block adoption of the euro.)

To complicate understanding, the debate doesn't fall neatly along political party lines. Murdoch, who allegedly favors Labor, is also "Euro-cautious," as Nicolson puts it. Some idea of The Sun's Euro-caution can be gleaned from a recent epithet for Jacques Chirac: Le Worm.

With many Britons the defense of the pound, and distaste for more integration with the EU, is surely rooted in national pride rather than economics. T he issue is the extent to which national identity and historical tradition would be sacrificed to a European union.

If the light bulb has suddenly switched on -- yes, the eagerness of the Kerry camp (and Democrats in general) to be seen as cooperative with West Europe's Bush bashers would make them a gullible audience for British pundits who support adoption of the euro and greater EU integration.

A Democrat White House, which surely would have continued the status quo at the US State Department, would likely have encouraged Blair to push hard for adoption the EU Constitution and the euro. Bush, on the other hand, could be assumed to take a studiously neutral approach to the controversy across the Pond.

Of course, one can't leap from these observations to the conclusion that all British Bush-bashers who play to an American audience have an ulterior motive. The camp represented by John Nicholson doesn't need the excuse of British-EU politics to demonize all things Bush. And of course all thoughtful Britons are concerned about the impact of Bush's preemption doctrine and his foreign-policy stance, which is a break from decades of US policy.

It doesn't follow that such concern includes giving Americans a very distorted picture of British opinion about Bush and his handling of the war on terror. Yet this is just what has been done by a parade of British pundits, and particularly during the runup to the US presidential election.

There is another angle that Americans should keep in mind while drinking in British opinion about the US campaign in Iraq and the war in general. The British foreign and secret services were as much blindsided as the American counterparts by the scope of the al Qaeda threat. So, just as in America, civil war is raging in British defense and diplomatic agencies, with the Old Guard fighting to defend their positions and save their careers. As in America, leaks and counter-leaks have accompanied the battles, particularly over intelligence involving WMD in Iraq.

The Old Guard's position is often found in the pages of the Left-leaning Guardian Unlimited newspaper -- a conduit, according to the gossip in American Intel circles, for MI6 leaks. Yes, this is the same Guardian that featured a column calling for the assassination of George W. Bush, and which made a shameless attempt to influence Ohio residents to vote for Kerry.

But again, Americans shouldn't assume that the Guardian's support for Kerry was chiefly motivated by support for the American Democrat agenda. With Kerry in the White House, the assumption would be that the CIA could escape the house cleaning that would accompany a second Bush term. That would help take the heat off MI6 and other branches of Britain's security network. A through shakeup at the CIA under the second Bush term would be presumed to have the opposite effect. The same reasoning would apply to the foreign service.

The lesson for Americans is "Don't assume on the face value." Just as the currents and eddies of American domestic politics influence our view of events outside our shores, so the reverse is true. And if British pundits are tempted to play on American ignorance of doings across the Pond -- not without reason do they look at us as ignorant.

If you groan that you're having a hard enough time keeping up with domestic news and the campaign in Iraq -- I don't think one has to become an expert on British-EU politics to become more cautious about accepting at face value the opinions of British pundits about the US.

Certainly, if you take in large quantities of hard news, it's wise to familiarize yourself with the editorial stance of all Europe's most influential newspapers. For the rest of Americans, a grain of salt should accompany hearing criticism directed at us from across the Atlantic.

Americans should be equally cautious about overlaying American political thinking on the motives of foreign critics. They're not necessarily all Leftists; to summarily dismiss them as such is to risk gaining a very misleading picture of overseas events as they apply to the USA.

I should add that The Sun is not the only major British newspaper to support Bush and his administration's position on dealing with terrorism. But whenever you find yourself asking whether everyone in Great Britain has gone bonkers, you might wish to recall the following letters to The Sun's editor:

"Since Aznar’s defeat, further bombings in Spain have shown that terrorism will be a threat whether you stand and fight or turn and run with the Wobbling Weasels."

" . . .Mr Blair has to choose if he goes with his EU chums and sticks two fingers up to America, or stays with America, as Britain has done for the last 60 years."

"WHATEVER the Spanish PM says, America is the main reason we are not all Soviet citizens. The US has pumped billions into liberating and defending Europe."

Alert readers may ask whether I figured out the locale of the raccoon's foraging during The Sun wrappings era. I'd say it's premature to envision Foggy Bottom employees who prefer The Sun to the Guardian. However, I recently noted that the raccoon produced a cocktail napkin holding a trove of hors d'oeuvres, of the kind routinely served at Washington embassy receptions. Could it be that a member of my foreign policy team found a soft touch, and a closet reader of The Sun, among the British contingent of Washington's diplomatic corps?

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