US-European freedom train

This might surprise many: While President Bush has staked America's safety on establishing democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Europeans care more about government promotion of democracy in countries than Americans do.

According to an extensive survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 74 percent of east and west European respondents say this is a right role for the European Union, and 51 percent of Americans agree it's properly Washington's job.

This finding presents a warming opportunity for the US-European relationship, which still hasn't recovered from a severe fallout over the Iraq war with some key allies. If both sides of the Atlantic take greater advantage of their mutual interest, then increased cooperation on spreading freedom could bring them closer together. Not only that, greater progress could be made on the democracy front itself, perhaps even in the difficult Middle East.

Some cooperation has produced very welcome results in the past 12 months. The US and Europe worked in concert to see Ukraine's "orange revolution" through. And in Lebanon, Washington and Europe - especially France - applied joint pressure to support a population that wanted Syria out and free elections in.

Were it only so easy (comparatively) in the rest of the Middle East. US pressure helped persuade Egypt to hold its first multiparty presidential election this week, for instance, yet Egypt permitted no international monitors - an activity that both Americans and Europeans usually take part in. The vote was a landslide win for President Hosni Mubarak, but low voter turnout shows a population unconvinced by Mr. Mubarak's tepid electoral reforms.

Suspended over the region like a great sandstorm is the unfinished experiment of Iraq. It points out the challenge for US-European efforts in the Middle East. For while Europeans may support promotion of democracy, they disapprove of Mr. Bush's international policies - Iraq among them - by 72 percent, according to the German Marshall Fund.

As fund president Craig Kennedy writes, "When the promotion of democracy is associated with the US or Mr. Bush, European support plummets. Europeans want to be active participants in furthering the cause of liberty but they want to do it on their terms and not as passive followers of US policy."

That implies Washington must be more willing to listen to European ideas that are more supportive of democratization through outside election monitoring, help from independent groups, and use of sanctions than use of force. (Interestingly, the survey showed Americans also share these preferences.)

Europe's success in helping democratize former communist countries and its historic cultural ties to the Middle East give it credibility in the Arab world. Certainly the further democratization of the Palestinian Authority is one case where Europe could assume a higher profile.

But since the survey in June, a transforming event has occurred in Europe: the London bombings. This, more than jawboning by Bush, may be what unites Europe more closely with the US in its effort to stamp out terrorism by promoting democracy in the Middle East.

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