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U.S./EU: Bush Trip A Missed Chance, Says European White House Press

  • Jeffrey Donovan

President George W. Bush returned to the U.S.on 28 May after a grueling weeklong trip to Europe. In the face of strong European criticism and street protests in Berlin and Paris, Bush sought to reassure his trans-Atlantic allies that he is a man they can do business with. In this report, RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan interviewed foreign members of the White House press pool -- Europeans who regularly cover the U.S. president -- for their assessment. While the trip undeniably had its high points, members of the press say Bush did not succeed in allaying all European doubts.

Rome, 29 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush pulled out all the stops on his trip to Europe to persuade skeptical allies to back an extended war on terrorism and to allay their concerns about his "go-it-alone" foreign policy and stances on trade and the environment.

To be sure, it was never going to be easy for Bush in Europe. For months, his image there has generally been that of a man bent on doing his own will: whether regarding the war in Afghanistan, a possible attack on Iraq, opposition to the Kyoto treaty on global warming, support of the death penalty, opposition to an international war-crimes court, or a recent decision to tax steel imports.

Nevertheless, Bush made a good start to his trip in Germany. The streets of the capital Berlin were thronged with 20,000 protesters, but Bush won over some critics with a moving speech before the German parliament on 23 May.

To cheers from skeptical lawmakers, Bush compared allied efforts to liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation and protect it from Soviet communism to what he sees as the new global fight, the war against terrorism.

"Those who seek missiles and terrible weapons are also familiar with the map of Europe. Like the threats of another era, this threat cannot be appeased or cannot be ignored. By being patient, relentless, and resolute, we will defeat the enemies of freedom," Bush said.

The speech was generally applauded by a normally critical German press. But if Bush briefly recalled past U.S. presidents who stared down the Soviet threat across the Iron Curtain -- such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan -- his European honeymoon proved to be short-lived.

At least, that's the view of members of the European White House press corps who accompanied Bush on the trip.

Nick Bryant, U.S. correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation, or BBC, said Bush actually accomplished quite a lot in his speech to the German parliament.

"I think it was a very cogent speech, it was well argued, it was quite thoughtful. And he presented the new threats from Iraq and the threats from terrorist groups around the world, and the idea of the two linking up together, in quite a forceful and persuasive way," Bryant said.

But Bryant, like other European White House reporters interviewed by RFE/RL, said the rest of Bush's trip did little to change European perceptions of the former oilman from Texas. Bryant summed up what he sees as a common European assessment of Bush.

"I think they think he's not very intelligent. I think they think he finds it very hard to articulate his opinions. I think they see him as a guy of very rigid convictions who isn't that considerate about the sensibilities of his European allies. And I think that was one of the big problems that came across in France particularly: that there's this sense in that country that America will go it alone. I don't think he really dissuaded a lot of his critics that wasn't the case," Bryant said.

After his trip to Germany, Bush flew to Moscow for the most important part of his journey: a four-day summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the two presidents signed a treaty agreeing to reduce the number of their strategic nuclear warheads by two-thirds.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Bush met with only scant protests, mostly from old communists. He was also shown a fine time by Putin, who gave him a boat tour of St. Petersburg and took him to a ballet at the Mariinskiy Theater.

But then Bush flew back to his historic Western European allies, and that's where things turned sour.

Jean-Jacques Mevel is the U.S. bureau chief for the Paris daily "Le Figaro." Mevel said a common French view of Bush is of a man uninterested in other cultures.

This impression was reinforced in an exchange with an American journalist during a news conference in Paris. The journalist addressed a question to Bush in English and then, in fluent French, put the same question to French President Jacques Chirac. Bush seemed both surprised and offended by the journalist's ability to speak two languages.

"Wait, wait a minute.... That's very good, the guy [the journalist] memorizes four words and he plays like he is intercontinental. Yeah, I'm impressed -- que bueno. Now I'm literate in two languages," Bush said.

Bush spent only a fleeting moment in the streets of Paris. Mevel said this has an impact on people, and that past presidents like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan were better at making a connection with the French.

"He doesn't give the image back in Europe of even trying to do that. Reagan was also very American, a 'Hollywoodian' figure even, I would say. But at least he tried to charm people. He was warm with people. Unfortunately, with Europeans, [Bush] has not managed to do that," Mevel said.

On his second and last day in France, Bush traveled to Normandy to pay tribute to the thousands of Americans killed there when they stormed the beaches in June 1944 to liberate France from the Nazis.

The occasion was Memorial Day for U.S. war veterans, and the imagery was apt. With rain pouring down on him, Bush walked by rows of tombstones of U.S. soldiers. Then he made a speech again linking the war on terrorism to the battle against Nazism.

The BBC's Bryant said it was a great chance for Bush to make his case compellingly to Europeans that the war on terrorism must go on. Instead, Bryant said an exhausted Bush flatly delivered a poorly written speech.

"He lost a golden opportunity in France, at the beaches of Normandy, overlooking Omaha beach, to really set the global war on terrorism in a global, historical context. And I think he let slip that opportunity," Bryant said.

Siegfried Buschschluter is Washington bureau chief for Germany's Deutschland Radio. He agreed that Bush could have made a much stronger case in Normandy.

"I was expecting something more concrete, detailed, linking the past -- the fight for freedom going back to the landing of the allies in Normandy -- and looking forward to beyond Afghanistan, and maybe even Iran or the axis of evil, [and] what that meant. [In other words,] the fight against terrorism now linked to the fight for freedom then. That wasn't complete and it wasn't detailed enough," Buschschluter said.

All three journalists agree a chasm separates European and U.S. opinion on the need to continue the war on terrorism. For one, there is a different threat assessment of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who Bush says seeks weapons of mass destruction and cannot be trusted.

Buschschluter said part of the problem is simply rhetorical. He said Europeans don't like the word "war," having lived so much of it themselves, and they believe Bush thinks first and foremost about using military means for a campaign that could be better fought with diplomatic, financial, and other measures.

But Mevel of "Le Figaro" said the difference in opinion largely comes down to the fact that the 11 September attacks hit America, not Europe.

"We haven't had in Europe that kind of wake-up call, at least in terms of dimensions and number of casualties. If we would have that kind of attack in the future, something I definitely would not hope, I suspect that the attitude of the Europeans against terrorism would switch dramatically toward the [attitude of the] U.S," Mevel said.

To that end, Buschschluter said the White House has made some progress in recent months in persuading Europe's leaders -- if not its public -- that there is a real danger in ignoring the nexus between arms of mass destruction and states that sponsor terrorism.

But Bush is not without support in Europe, among leaders and the public. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the most pro-American leader in Europe along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told reporters yesterday after dining with Bush that Italy would back a U.S.-led war on Iraq "provided it is proven that [Saddam Hussein] is seeking weapons of mass destruction."

As Ennio Caretto, U.S. bureau chief for the Milan daily "Corriere della Sera," said: "If the Americans want to take on Iraq, in Europe they can definitely count on the support of at least Britain and Italy."