Unspoken message of Bush's 'listening tour'

The president's words about democracy didn't always have the intended effect on his European audiences.

About a day into his European trip last week, President Bush decided it was "a listening tour" - and he periodically repeated that theme for the duration.

He listened to Jacques Chirac, he listened to Javier Solana, he listened to Gerhard Schröder, he listened to Vladimir Putin. This was still the George W. Bush who in his first term snubbed international organizations and pursued a war in Iraq, but now he was spending most of a week in Europe, smiling widely and listening.

The German daily Die Welt had its own way of characterizing the visit: "The Empire Smiles Back."

But Mr. Bush came with more than just open ears. He also came with a message, with the good news of democracy and its liberating power - a message Bush discovered in the days after the Iraq war, and which he made the hallmark of his second inaugural address. It was this message - and its accompanying invitation to Europeans to join America in spreading democracy around the globe - that made Bush's interlocutors, his "partners in shared values," a bit uncomfortable.

There are several reasons for this discomfort - all of which reared their head along the president's stops in Brussels; Mainz, Germany; and Bratislava, Slovakia, and all of which will influence Europe's cooperation with America as issues from the Middle East to the former Soviet republics move forward.

Most simply, America's traditional allies that are now are grouped in the European Union feel they have been doing a version of the democracy development that Bush is touting for a long time. One EU official pointed out that Europe has been working with the Palestinians for a decade now on building institutions and a civil society - hinting that perhaps it was that long, slow work that was now bearing fruit in the form of a new Palestinian mentality.

So there's a trace of annoyance at the American president for selling democratization as it if were his franchise - and especially after four years of actions that for many Europeans were more about empire-building than democracy-spreading.

A second reason, though, is that Europe - with the breakup of the Balkans still fresh in its memory and the feeling (often repeated to an American visitor) that "the Middle East is closer to us than it is to you" - is more interested in stability than in a revolutionary call to democratic arms.

Europe stood up for fair and transparent elections in Ukraine in December when they were turning into anything but. Yet there was also discomfort and a sense among some Europeans that maybe the affront to Russia was too blatant when Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko showed up at the NATO summit last week.

Here was one more former Soviet satellite positing its membership in the transatlantic club. Did Mr. Chirac really have an unavoidable commitment when he left the room after Mr. Yushchenko's introduction - or was he signaling that Europe did not intend to rock the boat too much?

The day before, Bush had caused a rumble of laughter to roll through the Concert Noble in Brussels, where he gave his trip's keynote speech. He said he had hoped to be as admired in Europe as Benjamin Franklin once was - but that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had told him to "be a realist."

Mixed in with the audience's mirth was no doubt a wish that Bush temper his idealism with a measure of realism. Throughout the speech there was more coughing and nervous silence than enthusiastic applause when Bush delivered lines such as enlisting democracy in the war on terror.

Part of the explanation may lie in a reason not exactly acknowledged openly: Bush's zeal for his newfound purpose strikes many Europeans as a crusade. "Bush addresses this question of promoting democracy with a kind of religious fervor that makes many Europeans very uncomfortable," says Gerhard Hofmann, chief political correspondent for RTL television in Berlin.

"In our experience, nothing good has come from a faith so strong in something that you want to impose it on others," says a Frankfurt banker who followed the Bush visit closely.

Which is not to say that the Bush style didn't have its successes. Several of the young Germans who sat down for a chat with the president said they came away with a better understanding of his reasoning. What particularly struck them, several said, was his explanation of how Sept. 11 had completely transformed his and many Americans' sense of what it will take to make the world safe in the 21st century.

And in Bratislava, Bush's black-and-white rhetoric played better with an audience that is more conservative and churchgoing than in some other European areas. The president thanked an enthusiastic throng in a town square for Slovakia's contribution in Iraq, and then suggested that Slovaks were standing with America because they understand that "evil is real."

It was a line he probably never would have used on the other stops of this listening tour of Europe.

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