Bush Tours Europe Hoping to Improve Relations

By  | 

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- President Bush is seeking to repair rocky relations with European allies embittered by the Iraq war and frustrated that the White House often ignored their views.

The president and his wife, Laura, left Washington early Sunday and were to arrive at night in Brussels.

Hoping to set a different tone for his second term, Bush will meet over five days with some of his toughest critics: French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, both of whom fiercely opposed the U.S. led invasion.

Bush also will see Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has alarmed the West with Moscow's retreat from democracy.

The United States and Europe too often "talk past each other," Bush said in an interview before his departure, and that it was time to reinvigorate relations among allies.

An alliance of 88 environmental, human rights, peace and other groups planned two days of protests in Brussels, beginning Monday, to demand "no European complicity" in a U.S.-designed world order.

Brussels police readied 2,500 officers — 1,000 more than the usual number for the three or four summit meetings that bring European Union leaders to the Belgian capital every year.

While seeking to move past old divisions, Bush and European leaders still face major differences.

Washington opposes Europe's plans to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo against China. Bush has been cool toward Europe's negotiations to persuade Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program. The White House prefers asking the U.N. Nations Security Council to punish Tehran.

Hard feelings linger from Bush's opposition to the Kyoto climate change treaty and the International Criminal Court.

An issue where the allies may find common ground is a demand that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon — a declaration prompted by the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in a massive bombing in Beirut.

In a speech Monday, Bush intended to express hopes for closer trans-Atlantic ties. Courting France, the president has a private dinner with Chirac.

On Tuesday, Bush is attending NATO and EU meetings. Wednesday finds the president in Mainz, Germany, for a meeting with Schroeder. The trip ends Thursday with talks with Putin in Slovakia.

Bush's talks with the Russian president are the most important of the trip, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Putin "has come out very recently and said the Iranians are not producing nuclear weapons, it's only nuclear power, and, therefore, he's going to go ahead and continue helping them. And I think that's a stern conversation they need to have," Rockefeller told "Fox News Sunday."

The question on European minds is whether Bush, after offering olive branches during his visit, will put his conciliatory words into practice and engage in give-and-take diplomacy with allies. Many Europeans are skeptical.

"Clearly Bush has learned in his first term that there are limits to what America can do by itself," said Ivo Daalder, a European expert on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration.

"He only has to look at Iraq where 85 percent of the foreign troops, 90 percent of the casualties and 95 percent of the reconstruction dollars are American," Daalder said.

In a signal of unity, NATO is expected to announce Tuesday that all 26 allies finally have agreed to contribute to the alliance mission to train Iraq's armed forces, even though some will only work outside the country or just help cover costs.

The world's most powerful military alliance has struggled to find the 160 instructors it needs to complete the first phase of the operation, which offers training for senior officers within Baghdad's heavily guarded "Green Zone."

Across Europe, Bush is widely disliked. European perceptions of an arrogant America were symbolized for many people by photos of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

The hard feelings were aggravated over the last four years by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's dismissal of Iraq critics as representing "old Europe" and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's statement that France should be punished and Germany ignored for opposing Bush.

Rice has improved relations recently by making Europe her first destination after being sworn in as secretary of state. Rumsfeld, too, suggested he has turned a new leaf by saying his earlier criticism came from the "old Rumsfeld."