Taking stock of president's geopolitical journey

Bush's meetings in Poland, Russia, and Middle East reveal White House more engaged.

As Air Force One jetted away from Jordan earlier this week, President Bush surprised a small group of reporters on board by inviting them up to his conference room for a chat. He crunched on ice from a soda and waved his hands in the air as he described the interaction he'd seen between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

The longtime adversaries had dived into conversation on their own, said Mr. Bush, according to pool reports. "I didn't need to be 'Mr. Chatty.' "

It was the kind of informal Bushism that once might have made White House handlers wince. This time? Laughter all round. Aides were ebullient after the sunny summit - and a big trip that some felt showed Bush's improvement as a diplomat.

From the stop at new best-friend Poland, through partial reconciliation with old best-friend France, to the Jordan meeting, it had been a grueling - and revealing - geopolitical journey.

Normally presidential foreign travel is replete with scripted meet-and-greet, or centered on one important strategic issue. This trip was rare in that it included two top-of-the-line events: a G-8 summit of unusual consequence, and Bush's first foray into the thicket of personal Middle East peacemaking.

Viewed together, these meetings revealed much about the way the US intends to operate in the world following its military victory in Iraq.

"As presidential trips go this was a big one," says Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow in US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Big-deal stopovers

Even the side stops carried symbolic weight. Take Bush's speech in Poland, where he thanked Polish leaders for sending troops to support the Iraqi war effort.

This was both a straightforward expression of gratitude and a subtle jab at France, Germany, and other members of so-called "old Europe" who opposed the war. It was a reminder that the US could influence European politics if it really tried, and that the united front of European nations that France wants so badly to lead is not very united at all.

In turn, the meetings with traditional European allies at Évian, France, during the G-8 were chilly but polite. They were successful in the sense that all parties seemed to want to put their recent disagreements behind them, and restore what former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the Western alliance's "shared strategic perspective."

Together with Russia, the US and its NATO allies expressed concern about nuclear proliferation in general, and the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea in particular.

China, until recently lukewarm about pressing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, also reportedly expressed anxiety at Évian about North Korea's nukes.

The statements were important, say analysts, because they come at a time when the US is having difficulty finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Given that context, it would be easy for other nations to balk at the American analysis of the dangers of WMD development elsewhere.

That doesn't mean anyone would back the US if its military forces rolled over the Iranian border from Iraq. Russia, for one, Thursday denied reports that it had pledged to suspend a planned delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran until Tehran accepts an expanded International Atomic Energy Agency inspections program.

But "the clear change is that both from the EU and Russia you are seeing much more concern about Iran's nuclear program than you did even a month ago," says Mr. Mead.

The trip's Jordanian leg

Then there is the US recommitment to a serious Middle East peace process, with personal involvement on the part of the US president.

Bush's folksy style of interventionism appears to have paid off, at least for now. Mr. Sharon has gone further than he ever has toward admitting the problems posed by Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The mere presence of Mr. Abbas was something of a victory for Bush, as Abbas is demonstrably not Yasser Arafat - the longtime face of Palestinian aspirations, and a man with whom Bush has refused to deal.

To say that the devil is in the details for the peace process, however, is as obvious as reporting that Jordan seemed a little sandy. No other conflict has so tested the historic American belief that personal contact between adversaries can build trust, and hence peace.

Yet Bush, for a day at least, carried on with the "if we could all just sit down and talk together" method of peacekeeping used by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

In his interview with reporters on Air Force One, Bush said that he had wanted to observe the interplay between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and see if they had the capacity to relax in each other's presence.

"And I felt they did ... the body language was positive. There wasn't a lot of hostility or suspicion," said Bush.

A little later in the interview the president began musing about how breaking through people's facades is one of his strengths.

"One of my jobs is to try to help relax people in a [formal] setting. I hope I'm pretty good at that," said Bush.

Then he turned to one of the journalists present.

"How do you feel, do you feel relaxed right now?" Bush asked the reporter.

"More relaxed than I should," was the response.

"It worked," said the president.

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