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U.S.: Bush Set To Depart On Busy Journey To Europe, Russia, Mideast

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush departs tomorrow for an eight-day trip to Poland, Russia, France, and the Middle East. It's the busiest trip of Bush's presidency and will cover many issues, including trans-Atlantic relations and the first three-way U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2 1/2 years.

Washington, 29 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Originally, U.S. President George W. Bush was scheduled to make stops in Poland and Russia before heading to the French town of Evian for a Group of Eight (G-8) summit of the world's top industrialized nations.

But to that already full agenda, which will put Bush face-to-face with European leaders who bitterly opposed the Iraq war, the White House added two further summits in the Middle East and a visit to U.S. troops in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Although Bush's itinerary involves key meetings that U.S. officials say they hope will "overcome the nastiness" that has crept into the trans-Atlantic relationship, the Middle East swing now appears to take on the greatest urgency.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a briefing yesterday that after visiting Poland, Russia, and France, Bush will head to Jordan for the first three-way summit of his presidency with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, the new prime minister of the Palestinians.

White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Bush is hoping to capitalize on a hopeful moment in the Middle East. "The president believes that this is a new opportunity for peace at the end of the war in Iraq, and particularly with the changes in the Palestinian leadership, that there is a new opportunity, with the Israeli government's acceptance of the steps in the 'road map' and some of the statements that Prime Minister Sharon has made about the future that he sees with the Palestinian people," Rice said.

Fleischer said the summit would take place "conditions permitting," a phrase which appeared to leave the door open to cancellation in the event of a major terrorist attack. But he stressed Bush would make every effort not to let the summit be derailed.

To get there, Bush will leave the G-8 meeting on 2 June -- a day before the gathering formally ends -- for a summit the next day with leaders of Arab countries in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

On 4 June, Bush is scheduled to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah in his country's Red Sea port city of Aqaba. Afterwards, Bush hopes to meet with Sharon and Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to discuss ways to start implementing the "road map," a new internationally backed peace plan for the Middle East.

The summit is expected to be a key test for Bush's capacity to follow through on his vision that toppling Saddam Hussein could unleash a wave of democratic and market reform across the region, starting with peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bush's early departure of the G-8 gathering in France means he will miss a summit dinner and the reading of the final communique. But Fleischer stressed this was not intended as a snub of France.

French President Jacques Chirac, who fell out with Bush over France's opposition to the Iraq war, said he understands Bush must leave for pressing business. But this week, Chirac also told the "Financial Times" that he is still "struck by the level of hostility coming out of Washington."

Bush and Chirac are due to meet one-on-one in Evian, their first such encounter in months. Asked about relations between the two, Fleischer said: "I think it's a meeting that the president is looking forward to. The fact of the matter is our relationship has undergone some strain. But there is much important business for the United States and France to attend to, and I think you'll see two leaders talk to each other in a spirit of alliance."

The 1-3 June summit in Evian, a picturesque lakefront town famous for its spring water, is expected to focus on a range of issues, including the world economy, Middle East peace, the war on terrorism, reconstruction in Iraq, and agriculture.

Farming is a potentially explosive issue in U.S.-European relations, says Nile Gardiner, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Expressing the U.S. point of view, Gardiner told RFE/RL: "It's important that the European Union starts to take major steps towards restructuring its Common Agricultural Policy [CAP]. Until the CAP is reformed -- and the CAP is the world's biggest protectionist racket -- until that is reformed, it's very difficult, I think, to make substantial progress in terms of U.S.-European trade negotiations."

The Evian summit will also look into poverty in the Third World and AIDS in Africa. Some analysts have speculated that Chirac sought to focus on such issues to make France appear more sympathetic to the plight of the world's poor countries.

But Bush will arrive well-prepared. On 27 May, Bush unveiled a $15 billion assistance package to victims of AIDS in Africa. And last week, he lashed out at Europe to stop undercutting efforts to feed starving Africans by blocking the use of genetically modified crops.

Biotech crops repel predatory insects that destroy crops in Africa. Europe opposes them, citing environmental and health concerns.

The first stop on Bush's trip is the Polish city of Krakow, where he is scheduled to give a speech outlining his vision of trans-Atlantic relations.

Poland has been one of Bush's strongest allies on Iraq and in Europe and the visit again underscores the strong relations between the two nations. Radek Sikorski, a former Polish deputy foreign and deputy defense minister, told RFE/RL that unlike in Paris or Berlin where thousands protested Bush last year, the U.S. president will be well-received in Krakow. "He's a big celebrity and Poland, as you know, is the most pro-American country in Europe, if not the world," Sikorski said. "So I expect huge crowds. I think the atmosphere of this should be very good."

It was in Poland that Bush gave arguably his most important speech on trans-Atlantic relations. In June 2001 in Warsaw, Bush urged a large expansion of NATO, an expansion that is now being realized.

Sikorski said he expects another important speech in Krakow. "I hope and expect that it will be a positive one, that he will sketch out a vision in which countries, particularly countries such as Poland, can be both good Europeans and good allies of the United States," he said.

Between the stops in Poland and Evian, Bush will visit St. Petersburg for the Russian city's celebrations of its 300th anniversary. He will be joined by other European leaders and will meet separately with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two also met in Putin's hometown last May.

Washington's continuing concern about Moscow's ongoing nuclear collaboration with Tehran is expected to be on the agenda. Rice yesterday said Bush and Putin are likely to discuss how to prevent countries from contributing to a military nuclear program in Iran.