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Tone deaf
Bush’s failure to appreciate — even symbolically — the depth and breadth of international opposition is a political liability

MORE THAN A million marched in London, making it the largest public demonstration in British history and dwarfing by comparison the historic 1968 Grosvenor Square protest against the Vietnam War that was attended by more than 50,000 — an eye-popping number at that time.

In Rome, Berlin, Dublin, Glasgow, Barcelona, Johannesburg, and Melbourne, the story was the same. The number who took to the streets to protest the prospect of war with Iraq exceeded organizers’ expectations.

And so it was in New York, where officials seriously misjudged the potential size of the crowd, prompting police to call for last-minute reinforcements of 1000 officers from outside Manhattan. The effect of this miscalculation interfered with the rights of thousands of people who came to the city from all over the Eastern Seaboard to add their voices to the chorus telling President Bush to slow down his war efforts — if not to cease them altogether.

In a shockingly cavalier display of constitutional insensitivity, the city had previously denied protest organizers a permit to march. Citing safety reasons and the fear of terrorists, the city confined protesters to a series of "holding pens" (see "Crowd Control" and "Muscled Out," News and Features), where as many as 400,000 gathered as the wind whipped through midtown's urban canyons in the frigid February cold.

Even more shocking was a federal court’s decision to uphold the march-permit denial. All told, 295 people were arrested in New York, most for disorderly conduct. Most of these arrests were the result of frustrated demonstrators tussling with police or trying to circumvent police efforts to keep protesters from joining the main rally. Whether by design or miscalculation, New York officials did much to hamper the almost entirely peaceful protest.

This is in sharp contrast with the way police handled the situation in London. Over the years, police have found that the less overtly restrictive they are with legitimately licensed marchers, the more peaceful demonstrations are. The huge crowds marched for hours in central London largely without incident. And there is no reason to believe that wouldn’t have been true in New York — as it was throughout most of the world. Prudence in the wake of September 11 doesn’t abrogate the US Constitution.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that officials in New York — a state with a Republican governor and a city with a Republican mayor, which in two years will play host to the national convention that will surely renominate George Bush as the GOP’s candidate for president — were motivated as much by political concerns as by fear for public well-being.

In London, the very citizens who might well bring down Prime Minister Tony Blair’s essentially pro-war government marched without impediment. In New York, a crowd even the New York Times deemed more conventional than countercultural had to struggle against official sanctions to stifle its protest, and, as so often happens, made its case even more powerfully as a result.

New York officials exhibited the same sort of obtuseness that is so characteristic of President Bush. Bush seems willfully tone deaf to the spirit that animates the voices not only of those who oppose him outright, but also of those who merely disagree — whether it be incrementally or substantially. Public opinion, at home and abroad, is increasingly less fluid. Bush’s ability to persuade, convince, or even mitigate is all but gone. With the nation and the world seriously divided, Bush does his cause no good by dismissing the global protests with MBA-speak.

"Size of protest, it’s like deciding, ‘Well I’m going to decide policy based on a focus group.’ The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security — in this case — security of the people," Bush said. That’s how he dismissed one of the most intense international outpourings of political sentiment in recent memory. By the way, whose security? That of the world? Europe? The United States? The Middle East? Iraq? It might help to be specific. Our hunch is that the millions who marched this weekend would agree. People of different nations see their self-interest and their obligations in different ways. This is why there has been such resistance in the UN, NATO, and among our traditional allies — France, Germany, and Turkey. This is why Russia, an increasingly valuable new friend, is so wary. Bush has been so cavalier in his dismissal of all their particular domestic, economic, and political needs that these states — where, thanks to the communications revolution, public opinion is just as vital as in our own democracy — are pushing back so vigorously.

As Richard Byrne points out in his front-page article this week (See "What Europeans Really Think"), this failure to appreciate plurality in points of view is at the heart of what passes for anti-Americanism, which is, in fact, opposition not only to Bush’s policies, but to Bush himself.

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Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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