A bid to mend frayed ties

In key address, Bush reaches out to Europeans as well as their leaders.

President Bush began laying the groundwork Monday for one of his top - and most difficult - foreign-policy goals of a second term: signing on Europe to his "big idea" of transforming the 21st century's trouble spots through the spread of democracy.

To succeed, Mr. Bush will have to cast beyond the leaders he will meet over a week-long trip. He will also have to convince a skeptical European public. That is why Bush has at the top of his agenda what White House officials say is a "conversation with Europe."

If the president hopes to entice Western leaders to join in building a "strategic agenda," he will have to narrow Europe's political differences with his vision for America. And that means reaching the people who vote these leaders in and out of office.

This public-diplomacy goal of the trip was clear Monday, when Bush rose to the stage of a Brussels concert hall for what he called "an opportunity to speak to the peoples of Europe."

"Together we united this continent with our democratic values," the president said, referring to World War II and its aftermath. Now the "Euro-Atlantic family" is "essential to peace and prosperity across the globe."

Addressing doubts the US favors a strong Europe that could rival its leadership, Bush said, "America supports a strong Europe because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom and peace in the world."

The president laid out a list of issues where the transatlantic partners must work together, including peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reform across the Middle East, notably in Iraq. All are issues Bush will take up in specifics as he meets Tuesday with leaders of NATO and the European Union. He received perhaps the loudest round of applause when he said, "Syria must end its occupation of Lebanon" and reiterated a call for working to ensure Lebanon's right to free elections this spring.

To a large extent, Bush's conversation with Europe really began last week, when he gave a number of short White House interviews to the European press, primarily to journalists from countries he would be visiting. It continues Wednesday in Mainz, Germany, when Bush is to join Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in a chat with a roomful of German citizens, and then Thursday when the president is scheduled to meet with "champions of freedom" in Eastern Europe and then speak in the town square of Bratislava, Slovakia.

There, Bush will remind Slovaks of their own fight for freedom from the Soviet yoke and the part the West played in that fight, according to White House officials. It may be the president's warmest reception.

Elsewhere, breaking the ice with a public that was largely anti-Bush even before the Iraq war won't be easy without some recognition of issues that matter to Europeans. For example, when Bush visits the EU institutions Tuesday, it will be hard for him to miss a giant white sphere on an adjacent traffic circle commemorating the start last week of the Kyoto accords on global warming. For many Europeans, Bush's withdrawal of the US from Kyoto symbolizes what they see as his broader hostility to international institutions.

Bush did mention global warning in Monday's speech. But he placed the emphasis on "new technologies" and the power of "human ingenuity" to tackle environmental challenges, rather than signing on to any international greenhouse gas limitations.

The unprecedented security arrangements alone will make it difficult for Bush to connect with the people. During a trip to Brussels in 1994, President Clinton spoke in a cobblestone square and stopped by a jazz club to play his saxophone. But in Germany precautions have led officials to shut down a section of the country's freeway system. And as Germans are quick to point out wryly, you don't win German hearts by messing with the autobahn.

Still, officials on this side of the Atlantic say Europe wants a "fresh start" to relations and to support the US in the goal of spreading stability and democracy. "Even if we were against the war [in Iraq], we must be interested in the success of the US," says Karsten Voigt, the German Foreign Ministry's coordinator of transatlantic relations. That is one reason Wednesday's US-German talks will take place in Mainz, he says. The city is close to German and American bases, "symbolizing our common efforts - for example in Afghanistan, where Germany is the second-largest foreign presence."

Brussels is the seat of both NATO and the EU, and another measure of Bush's success will be his ability to articulate US relations with each while navigating the growing sense of competition between the two. (Of NATO's 26 members, 19 are members of the EU, which is working to develop its own security and defense capabilities.)

Bush will make the first visit of his presidency to EU institutions - specifically the Council, which represents member countries, and the executive Commission. The president will give roughly equal time to NATO and the EU. He will get some of what he wants at NATO, where Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is set to announce that all of the alliance's 26 members are signed on to helping in Iraq in some capacity, say NATO officials. Those efforts include training Iraqi security forces, as well as providing equipment and funding.

But most analysts expect both NATO and the EU to fall short of what Bush would like in terms of aid to Iraq. And the president may not hear everything he'd like on the Middle East. Some US officials support the idea of a NATO role in providing border security as Israel undertakes its planned withdrawal from Gaza this summer. But Mr. De Hoop Scheffer opposes any NATO role before a comprehensive peace settlement is reached.

On a broader scale, some Europeans say the recent success of Iraq's elections and the sight of millions of Iraqis risking their lives to begin building a new nation has had the effect of softening - slightly - public opposition to Bush. At the same time, some US analysts say the unanticipated difficulties the US has faced in Iraq help explain the Bush effort to reach out to Europe. The combination of the two, they add, offers greater leeway for the two sides to work together. But that means Bush will have to show Europeans a different side from what they think they know of him.

"He has to be willing to listen and to do something for them in return for what he wants to accomplish," says Lawrence Korb, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "For example, he needs to help them on Iran," referring to EU-led efforts to negotiate with Iran on ending any nuclear arms ambitions. "But so far he's shown no signs of going the distance."

Bush tried to strike some common ground on the issue Monday. He said the free world shares the "common goal" that Iran "must not develop nuclear weapons." Yet while he said Iran is "different from Iraq" and that diplomacy is still in its "early stages," he failed to give any sign of joining in the negotiations with Tehran, as Britain, France, and Germany were hoping.

Mr. Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, says that like Bush, President Reagan had a "big idea," in his case about the "evil" Soviet Union. "But when Gorbachev came along and said 'Let's deal,' " Korb adds, "he said 'OK.' I'm not sure the Europeans see this willingness in Bush."

What seems clear is that they see Bush's own call for revitalized transatlantic relations as an opportunity to test the waters. Earlier this month German Chancellor Schröder stirred up a tempest when he said NATO was no longer the preeminent forum for debating transatlantic relations and called for a high-level reassessment.

But German officials insist the ideas behind the speech - which Bush says he's looking forward to discussing with "Gerhard" - are far from a desire to bury NATO. "It was a critical assessment that NATO has not been sufficiently used as a body of consultation," says the Foreign Ministry's Mr. Karsten. "Germany wants a NATO that is more relevant."

But he says the speech also had a message for America. "The underlying idea ... is that Europe accepts the US as the indispensable nation, but the US should see Europe as an indispensable partner."

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