His ability to get what he wants from the three-day gathering of NATO leaders – on boosting the alliance's combat presence in Afghanistan, advancing a continental missile-defense program, and extending the prospect of NATO membership to Russia's neighbors Ukraine and Georgia – will be challenged by his status as a lame-duck president.
While the trip is unlikely to be much of a victory tour, Mr. Bush is making what may be his last major European trip as president with his legacy intact as an American leader who helped expand eastward the reach of democracy and freedom on the Old Continent.
"Against the backdrop of ... a foreign policy that overall looks threadbare and that will hand off two land wars to his successor … this president's expansion of the freedom agenda to the newer democracies of Europe has the semblance of success," says Wess Mitchell, research director for the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Bush may well leave the summit claiming some gains on two of three top issues the US will raise, Mr. Mitchell says. On Afghanistan, the US should win some commitments of additional boots on the ground, he says. On missile defense, some kind of blessing is likely for a project to include facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, he adds.
Only on the issue of offering a membership track to Ukraine and Georgia – which Bush emphasized Tuesday on a presummit stop in Kiev, Ukraine – is the president likely fall short of his mark, Mitchell says.
Opposition from Europeans concerned about relations with Russia, especially from the Germans, is just too stiff.
"He's kept talking the talk, but I think he gave up on getting this done now a while ago," Mitchell says.
Bush champions the 26-member NATO alliance as being an engine for spreading and solidifying democracy in what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called "New Europe." This week's summit will issue invitations to Balkan countries Albania and Croatia to join the alliance, although a planned invitation to Macedonia is in doubt. And Bush had hoped to make offering a membership track to Ukraine and Georgia the capstone of his transatlantic legacy.
Promises match policy, officials say
As for the big picture, administration officials say Bush promised to advance a free, democratic, and secure Europe "from the Baltic to the Black Sea" – and that his policies have done so.
Noting that Bush first laid out his vision in a speech in Warsaw in 2001, and will culminate his efforts at a summit in Romania, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried says, "…to start in Warsaw and then to end in Bucharest, on the Black Sea, and look out, is strategically consistent."
Speaking to reporters on the way to Kiev Monday, Mr. Fried said that "in 2008 we're still … advancing where we started" with the last expansion of NATO in 2004, which included summit host Romania.
Bush has succeeded with his broader Europe policy, analysts say, though that has not addressed some of the bigger existential issues facing the alliance.
"NATO today is a reflection of President Bush's firm conviction that the frontiers of freedom must be advanced across Europe right to the borders of Russia, and that is his legacy," says Nile Gardiner, a transatlantic policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Still, Bush is likely to leave a "two-tier" alliance in which only a few nations consistently take on the pact's military burdens, and in which some of the oldest and largest members rely on national "caveats" to avoid the most dangerous assignments, Mr. Gardiner adds.
Others say the Bush team is responsible for NATO's discord over Afghanistan, because it initially rebuffed alliance help when the US first invaded Afghanistan.
More broadly, Bush will hand off to his successor some unfinished business that will dog NATO, experts say: redefining the alliance's strategic purpose to fit the post-9/11 21st century, and developing a common approach toward Russia.
Relations with Russia challenging
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, are set to attend the NATO summit, and Bush is to make a postsummit stop in the Russian resort of Sochi to meet just with them. This contact, say some experts, bodes well for an entente over NATO missile defense, which Russia sees as a threat.
US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley hinted at progress Monday when he said the Sochi stop "will provide an opportunity to nail down some areas and emphasize areas of cooperation, make progress on some outstanding issues...."
But no matter what happens during Bush's trip, big questions will hang over the alliance and US policy toward it.
For one, does European unease over Russsian chest-thumping over Ukraine and Georgia mean Russia is developing a veto on further NATO expansion?
Stephen Flanagan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here says NATO is going to have to deal with a Russia that doesn't see the alliance as a security threat so much as a force that "undercuts Moscow's strategy to bring its former satellites back within the Russian sphere of dominance." One component of that strategy, he says, "is to try to undermine US and NATO influence."