Old and New Europe are fighting about what to do on Iraq. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer notes that when it comes to the prospect of war, there's more disagreement between politicians than there is in the polls.
The catfight between so-called Old Europe and so-called New Europe is highly entertaining political spectator sport. It's one of the few welcome diversions in the geopolitical big leagues these worrisome days.
The high point came when French President Jacques Chirac told a meeting of the European Union (Old Europe) that Central and Eastern European countries (New Europe) should behave themselves and keep their views on Iraq policy to themselves, or risk never being admitted into the EU club.
Chirac said the New Europe countries that have supported U.S. policy on Iraq were "badly brought up" and missed "an opportunity to keep quiet." They probably order white wine with red meat, too.
The Czech Republic's foreign minister's retort: "We thought we were preparing for war with Saddam Hussein and not Jacques Chirac."
And, by the way, says New Europe, we'll be happy to take those lucrative American military bases off your hands and put them in our countries.
The neighborhood spat has been hijacked by some American antagonists in the Iraq debate to bolster their rhetorical causes.
Most notably, certain conservatives say that so many New Europe countries support the U.S. liberation of Iraq because they are sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed Iraqis, having themselves lived under tyranny.
"Europe did not take to the streets against America last weekend; only Western Europe did," wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer:
"The streets of Eastern Europe were silent. The Poles, and their Eastern European neighbors, have an immediate personal experience of life under tyranny -- and of being liberated from that tyranny by American power. The French and their neighbors are six decades removed from their liberation. They think freedom is as natural as the air they breathe, rather than purchased at the price of blood -- American blood in no small measure."
It's a moving pronouncement, but as best as I can determine, it does not have the added virtue of being true.
Public opinion in New Europe, at least as measured by polls and news stories, pretty much reflects Old Europe. In addition, public opinion polls in Old and New Europe pretty closely mirror those taken in the New World -- the U.S. of A.
And, for the record, there have been plenty of war protests in Eastern European countries whose government's support U.S. policy.
Even in some of the Eastern Europe countries that have signed major statements of support for U.S. Iraq policy, polls show the public opposes war. The margins are similar to Western Europe, even Tony Blair's Britain.
In Bulgaria, a February poll showed 19 percent "sympathize with the U.S. and allies." 10 percent sympathize with Iraq and 55 percent sympathize with neither. 64 percent fear terrorist attacks if Bulgaria supports the U.S.
In Latvia, 81 percent were opposed to military action in Iraq.
In Hungary, a Gallup poll showed 82 percent oppose military action "under any circumstances." In the Czech Republic, 67 percent are against military action.
Public opinion in Poland is perhaps the most pro-American. Fifty-two per cent say Poland should back the U.S. politically, but 63 percent oppose sending Polish troops to help.
The leaders of these countries, like George Bush and Tony Blair, are bucking public opinion and they have many reasons to do so.
They partly feel it's necessary to cast their lot with the one remaining world superpower and international aid donor – America. They don't want to be dominated by the EU political bullies. They think the world may be a safer place without Saddam and with an effective global police force – America.
As my daughter would say, "whatever." The point is the masses in New Europe are not clamoring for the moral liberation of their brothers and sisters in Baghdad.
Liberal, or at least non-self-proclaimed-conservatives tend to argue that the U.S. has simply bribed New Europe to sing from our hymnal. And they also seem to think it's undignified for us to court such low-rent sovereigns.
"Our new best friends are the very people we used to protect our old best friends from," wrote Maureen Dowd. "The U.S. is now in the process of wooing the minnows … " People whom probably order red wine with their minnows.
By this line of thought, only certain allies are worth having. I guess the Brits don't count, the toady cousins. Spain doesn't count. New Europe doesn't count. France, Germany and I guess Scandinavia count.
And the conservative liberation theologians don't much care about Fraidy-cat-France and Goosestep Germany. They're delighted to be in the trenches with Estonia, Poland and Bulgaria.
The funny thing is, the people of all these countries seem to have remarkably similar views about the Iraq dilemma.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.