Invitations to world leaders to kick the dirt and sample the barbecue of President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, are rare and always symbolic.
So when Spain's Prime Minister José María Aznar visits the Crawford spread this weekend, the host is saying two things: I appreciate this hombre who speaks my language on Iraq; and by inviting this leader of a mid-size, pro-NATO European country to my beloved ranch, I'm letting the world know I have a vision of a new Europe.
In the context of the ongoing tug-of-war between the US and Europe's traditional powerhouses, France and Germany, over Iraq and the kind of Europe that should emerge in the post-cold war era, the Aznar visit carries all the more weight.
"Bush gives these [invitations to Crawford] only sparingly. They're precious things and they always mean something," says John Hulsman, an expert in US-Europe relations at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. "Through Aznar, Bush is saying, 'We support a Europe where the long-dominated countries of both Western and Eastern Europe have a voice, especially those countries with which we share a common philosophy on security and the use of force.' "
Noting that French President Jacques Chirac only this week advised Eastern European countries hopeful of entering the European Union to "shut up" with their pro-US views of Iraq, Mr. Hulsman adds, "If [support for the Bush vision] strikes fear in the Gaullist mind with its vision of a centralized Europe, then [for Bush] that's an added bonus."
Spain's Aznar is one of eight European leaders who signed an open letter earlier this month supporting the US approach to Iraq. With Bush facing growing international resistance to the use of force, Aznar's willingness to go out on a limb - in the face of antiwar sentiment at home - is appreciated in the White House.
Spain is one of nine countries filling rotating positions on the United Nations Security Council, and one of the few council members clearly supportive of the US. But with Iraq showing little sign of increasing its cooperation with United Nations weapons inspectors - as a council majority has demanded - and with the US and Britain working on wording for a new resolution likely to be circulated to Security Council countries next week, US officials believe the influence of supportive countries like Spain will be crucial in coming days.
Still, the Aznar invitation to Crawford is about more than Iraq. It's a way of keeping the debate about Europe's future going.
"Bush is trying to heighten the rift between countries that support US policy, and those that don't," says Hurst Hannum, a Europe specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
The rift did not arise with the Bush administration, Mr. Hannum says, but surges from European resistance to the US as the world's only superpower - especially when Europe is busy building up its own power within the European Union. The gap has only grown, he adds, under a US administration that to many European eyes overemphasizes the role of force in the world and seeks to undercut any challenge to US supremacy.
Each side of the Atlantic has a "superiority complex" that hampers its dealings with the other, Hannum says, with each side considering its view of the world the morally correct one. Within that clash of visions, he adds, "Bush is trying to win over what he considers the 'new' Europe to the US view of the world as the best one for the future."
Other observers say Bush's primary goal is not to feed Europe's divisions, but to encourage a particular vision of Europe.
"US policy can't be to turn Europe upside down, that doesn't serve American interests," says Donald Abenheim, a visiting scholar and NATO expert at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. "But ever since the European Union decided in 1992 to build a common foreign and security policy, the US has been keen to see that Europe not adopt the French vision" for this new Europe - a vision that would play down NATO and centralize Europe on the Franco-German axis of power.
As much as American pundits like to complain about France as a thorn in the side of the US, Mr. Abenheim says "there has long been a contain-France vision in the US, going back to Roosevelt. It certainly didn't start with Bush."
But he says what is motivating Bush is a "common vision on global security risks" that Bush has developed since Sept. 11 with leaders like Aznar.
"Both Bush and Aznar are conservatives, they have something common in the Spanish language, but what has really accelerated their relations is a common perception of security challenges," Abenheim says.
Spain's problem with Basque separatist terrorism predisposes the two leaders to think similarly about terrorism's challenge, some observers say. Abenheim says Spain's interest in the challenge of extremist Islamic ideology predates both Bush's election and Sept. 11, while "Spain is also a country willing to accept the role of [military] power in the world."
On all these counts, Bush is comfortable with Aznar - showing what kind of thinking he hopes will predominate in Europe.
Aznar in Crawford "is the revenge of the Europe's middle-ranking powers over those that would tell the rest to keep their ideas to themselves," says Heritage's Hulsman. Adds Hoover's Abenheim, "Crawford is political symbolism at many levels. You notice it's not Jacques Chirac who's going."