Bush is an idiot but don't tell the Europeans

We can all relax, then. Following his meeting with Vladimir Putin, Boy George told us he had "looked the man in the eye" and "I was able to get a sense of his soul". Perhaps it did not occur to Boy George that his phenomenal, highly favourable insight into the very being of the former head of the KGB was somewhat premature - even when, four days later and as a direct result of their meeting, Putin was talking about building up Russia's nuclear arsenal again, "multiple warheads", and a new deadly arms race with the US. Having accompanied Air Force One all over the world with Dubbya's dad - from Dhahran to Paris, from Geneva to Cairo, from Detroit to Jeddah - I decided that I would stay put this time, watching how America received news of Boy George's first big foray among the foreign grown-ups. And I watched unfold before me, I think, a very interesting phenomenon.

In private, Americans still tend to be deeply embarrassed by Boy George's gaucheness and blatant lack of readiness for the presidency. I was in Chicago during some of Boy George's visit to Europe, and even non-political people in the suburbs there tended to have a "Oh no - what's he done now?" reaction. Back in Washington, the most ardent Republicans waited with a similar mixture of dread and private amusement to hear of Boy George's latest gaffes.

There were many, too. If you scoured the news columns of the New York Times, you would spot, buried away in the middle of a long despatch from one of its White House correspondents in Gothenberg: "Mr Bush seemed muted during the news conference and gave several erroneous, unclear or unwelcome characterizations of the issues he was addressing." You couldn't get it more clearly from America's premier newspaper: the 43rd president is a dolt. Turning to the problems of Africa, Boy George clearly remembered briefings about Aids: "Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease," he opined. He mangled the Spanish language. He not only referred to Jose Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, as "Anzer" - but also then repeatedly called him Spain's "president".

Yet this is not the picture that is emerging around the world from Dubbya's first ever major visit abroad. While news reporters dutifully reported what actually happened, spinners and leader writers were protectively circling the wagons around their 43rd president; true, the occasional old curmudgeon such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, said publicly of Boy George's ability to discern a man's soul that it was maybe "a little premature for that kind of judgement after a 90-minute meeting".

But the overall public view of the US establishment, which inevitably trickles down to be the consensus wisdom in Britain, too, put it differently: Boy George had a successful first series of summits, in which he forged valuable ties with European leaders despite a growing "anti-Americanism" among Europeans.

This latter phenomenon is developing not because Boy George is the ignorant hick depicted abroad, but because "Europeans" have outrageously un-American views about the US ditching of the 1972 ABM treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, and so on. Protect our president and the good American values he represents, guys - whatever you may say and think in private.

The net effect is that America is retreating into an insular shell to protect its president. What is so striking about Boy George's instant knowledge of Putin's very soul, however, is its mixture of naivety and arrogance. It is naive because no sensible politician would make such an instant judgement of a fellow world leader (especially one with so murky a past as Putin's); it is arrogant because it epitomises the insouciance of Boy George's patrician, Wasp background, even though (unlike his father) he has had no previous experience of world diplomacy; and, finally, it shows Boy George's sheer stupidity in making public such a hostage-to-fortune view.

Yet Boy George clearly now considers himself some kind of wise old head prefect among the smaller boys on the world stage, his personal stature unquestioned and his authority intact; if he reneges on treaties and protocols on which the American word was solemnly binding, then these foreign fellows will accept that he is the American leader, with the divine right of a king who has succeeded his father and is acting for the common good. It's rather like a dad coaching Little League: you inspire little Biff with tales of how to improve his pitching, and it will do wonders for the little guy's morale. Be nice to that Anzer - Aznar? - guy, and he'll lap it all up, too, won't he?

The curious protective instinct of the US establishment is partly because the country is stuck with its president for four years, however badly he performs; it's partly a hubristic lack of readiness to accept any criticism from outside; and it's partly because Boy George's chief handlers (Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary) have so far succeeded in edging out potentially sane voices such as Colin Powell (who was on Dubbya's trip, but was kept quiet to the extent that not a cheep was heard from him).

The irony of all this is that, privately, Boy George is commanding as little respect at home as he is abroad. Americans - more of whom, let us not forget, voted for Al Gore as president than for Boy George - are willing to hear this from among themselves, but not from those uppity Europeans. Next month, Boy George proceeds to a stately tour of western Europe, including the UK. Will he peer into Tony Blair's soul, I wonder? And, if so, what new mysteries will this divine oracle of our age discern?

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England