What was sketched into the presidential agenda as a transatlantic foray to address the North Atlantic Alliance's future has instead become one of the more consequential foreign-policy trips of the Bush presidency – and one of the tougher tests of his international leadership.
From the NATO summit he attends in this Baltic capital Tuesday and Wednesday, to the sit-down with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he has added to his agenda, this has become the trip of the George W. Bush wars.
By adding a leg to Amman, Jordan, to meet with Mr. Maliki, the White House has made this trip a crucial part of the president's deliberations on policy adjustments to address the deteriorating situation in Iraq. But before that, Mr. Bush will take up the war in Afghanistan with his NATO colleagues – and Afghanistan is something the president dare not disregard even in the midst of Iraq developments.
Not only is the NATO-led war in Afghanistan facing its own mounting challenges, with potentially deep consequences for the international war on terror, but of the two wars, it is also the one where the United States has important allied assistance.
Yet between the NATO focus on Afghanistan and the Jordan stop to address Iraq, Bush has essentially undertaken a trip focused on the broader Middle East. The test for him will come in his ability to press others into closer cooperation with the US.
"The way Bush's trip has evolved, it highlights how the major security issues we face are no longer in Europe but in the Middle East," says Ronald Asmus, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Center in Brussels. "Rhetorically the US and Europe are together on that, but politically and psychologically the alliance hasn't really made the leap."
NATO leaders may not like the prospect of a summit with an American president preoccupied with Iraq, Mr. Asmus adds, but that should prompt them "to consider whether they are really addressing the central security challenges facing us today."
In Riga, Bush will press the 26-nation alliance for both more money and more troops for Afghanistan, according to White House officials. To make his case, Bush will emphasize the connection between international security and the battle to defeat a resurgent Taliban and elements of Al Qaeda.
"If NATO is to be successful [in Afghanistan], it will need enough troops and the right kinds of troops to be able to do the mission," says Judy Ansley, senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council. "If you look to the threats of the 21st century, most of them are not right on the borders of Europe as they used to be during the cold war. Afghanistan is a perfect example. You have a terrorist threat that has already hit our shores," she adds, and it "obviously will threaten NATO and NATO member nations if we don't deal with it there."
NATO already commands more than 30,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. Gen. James Jones, the supreme allied commander, is looking for summit leaders to add 2,500 troops to the total.
The challenge for Bush, however, will be skepticism about his leadership in the wake of perceived defeat in the midterm elections, and what is viewed internationally as his lame-duck status.
"The alliance needs some honest discussion about what it will take to lead a successful counterinsurgency and win in Afghanistan, and normally that would take prompting and leadership from the American president," says John Hulsman, scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The problem is that Bush is in no position, given his political weakness and the shambles of his foreign policy, to lecture anyone at the [NATO] summit."
Afghanistan has become the central test of whether NATO will be able to act as a true alliance to take on the global security issues of the 21st century, says Mr. Hulsman, an expert in transatlantic issues. Too many countries are resorting to so-called "caveats" to exempt themselves from the most dangerous combat missions, he notes, and that raises questions about those members' dedication to the common goals of the alliance.
"The Germans say, 'We are deployed in the north of Afghanistan and that is all we can do,' but being in the north is kind of like guarding New Jersey. It's a little beside the point," he says. "If they and others aren't prepared to put troops in the south where the heavy fighting is and where they might take casualties, then what is the point of the alliance?"
Having that discussion at the summit "risks ruining the party," Hulsman says. "But if you can't get everybody to share the burden of facing the enemies that threaten all of us – and by that I mean Al Qaeda and the forces in the larger battle with terrorism – then why have the party at all?"
Moreover, tough decisions about issues like troop deployment will be extra hard to come by in Riga, other experts say, because NATO countries generally are in a period of weakened leadership.
"President Bush is not the only weak political leader going there. Most of them are rather weak or on their last political lap," says Simon Serfaty, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Noting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac will be out of the picture by next summer, while others like German Chancellor Angela Merkel face growing challenges at home, he says, "You do have a great deal of political weakness, which makes it all the more difficult to make some of the more demanding decisions related to this renewal of the alliance."
One thing working in Bush's favor, some experts underline, is that US-Europe tensions have eased since the falling-out over Iraq. Misgivings among partners still exist, they add, but are now more common between those taking on the bulk of the burdens and those sitting out the "hot war" assignments in Afghanistan.
"These tensions go to the heart of whether NATO is really going to work as an alliance on the security challenges we all face and where we face them – and for the foreseeable future that means the Middle East," says Asmus of the German Marshall Fund. "If you really believed the security of your nation was at stake, would you put such conditions on how your soldiers could fight for your defense?"