Read My Ears

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

January 28, 2005

Berlin

Having spent the last 10 days traveling to Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, I have one small suggestion for President Bush. I suggest that when he comes to Europe to mend fences next month he give only one speech. It should be at his first stop in Brussels and it should consist of basically three words: "Read my ears."

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: There is nothing that the Europeans want to hear from George Bush, there is nothing that they will listen to from George Bush that will change their minds about him or the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Bush is more widely and deeply disliked in Europe than any U.S. president in history. Some people here must have a good thing to say about him, but I haven't met them yet.

In such an environment, the only thing that Mr. Bush could do to change people's minds about him would be to travel across Europe and not say a single word - but just listen. If he did that, Mr. Bush would bowl the Europeans over. He would absolutely disarm and flummox people here - and improve his own image markedly. All it would take for him would be just a few words: "Read my ears. I have come to Europe to listen, not to speak. I will give my Europe speech when I come home - after I've heard what you have to say."

If Mr. Bush did that none of the European pundits would be able to pick apart his speeches here and mock the contradictions between his words and deeds. None of them would comment on his delivery and what he failed to mention. Instead, all the European commentators, politicians and demonstrators would start fighting with one another over what to say to the president. It might even force the Europeans to get out of their bad habit of just saying, "George Bush," and everybody laughing or sneering as if that ends the conversation, and Europe doesn't have to declare what it stands for.

Listening is also a sign of respect. It is a sign that you actually value what the other person might have to say. If you just listen to someone first, it is amazing how much they will listen to you back. Most Europeans, though, are convinced that George Bush is deaf - that he cannot listen or hear. Just proving that he is not deaf, and therefore the Europeans don't have to shout, would do wonders for Mr. Bush's standing.

What would Mr. Bush hear? Some of it is classic Eurowhining, easily dismissible. But some of it is very heartfelt, even touching. I heard it while doing interviews at the Pony Club, a trendy bar/beauty parlor in East Berlin. And more and more I think it explains why many Europeans dislike Mr. Bush so intensely. It's this: Europeans love to make fun of na´ve American optimism, but deep down, they envy it and they want America to be that open, foreigner-embracing, carefree, goofily enthusiastic place that cynical old Europe can never be. Many young Europeans blame Mr. Bush for making America, since 9/11, into a strange new land that exports fear more than hope, and has become dark and brooding - a place whose greeting to visitors has gone from "Give me your tired, your poor" to "Give me your fingerprints." They look at Mr. Bush as someone who stole something precious from them.

Tim Kreutzfeldt, the bar owner, said to me: "Bush took away our America. I mean we love America. We are very sad about America. We believe in America and American values, but not in Bush. And it makes us angry that he distorted our image of the country which is so important to us. It is not what America stands for - and this makes us angry and it should make every American angry, because America lost so much in its reputation worldwide." The Bush team, he added, is giving everyone in the world the impression that "somebody is coming to kill you."

Stefan Elfenbein, a food critic nursing a beer at our table, added: "I know many people who don't want to travel to America anymore. ... People are afraid to be hassled at the border. ... We all discuss it, when somebody goes to America [we now ask:] 'Are you sure?' We had hope that Kerry would win and would make a statement, 'America is back to what it was four years ago.' We hoped that he would be the symbol, the figure who would say, '[America] is the country that welcomes everybody again.' [But] now we have to wait four more years, hopefully for somebody to give us back the country we knew and liked."

Yes, yes, there are legitimate counters to all these points. But before anyone here will listen to Mr. Bush make those counterpoints, he will have to really listen to them first.