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U.S.: Trip Seen To Have Helped Bush In Mideast, Russia, But Not In Europe

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. President George W. Bush has returned to the White House after his busiest foreign trip yet -- an eight-day journey to Europe, Russia, and the Middle East that focused on the frayed trans-Atlantic relationship and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Washington, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After the busiest foreign trip of his two-and-a-half years in office, U.S. President George W. Bush has returned home to mostly high marks following his first foray into Middle East summitry.

Analysts are mostly skeptical about prospects for improving trans-Atlantic relations after a fairly chilly encounter between Bush and French President Jacques Chirac in France.

But they largely praise Bush for getting the Israeli and the Palestinians to meet in Jordan on 4 June and to embrace steps to implement the "road map" peace plan calling for a Palestinian state by 2005.

Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, says, "I think that President Bush has succeeded in securing major concessions on both sides, which is a huge achievement. It remains to be seen whether these concessions are actually followed through on. But I believe that the president has shown determination to bring about a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he is gaining a lot of credit for that in the Middle East."

In Jordan, Bush was able to get Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pledge to begin dismantling "unauthorized outposts" of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Likewise, Bush got new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to declare that "the armed intifada must end."

Still, skeptics wrote off the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in two-and-a-half years as political theater. Israeli settlers later protested in Jerusalem against any move to dismantle their homesteads, while Palestinian militants vowed they would not disarm.

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington, says the key issues separating Israelis and Palestinians -- settlements, the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem -- are unlikely to be solved.

"We have been down this road so many times before, where there are vague, general statements of cooperation, of wanting a settlement, of pledging to make progress toward an accord. And in every case in the past, those hopes dissipate in a matter or months or sometimes even weeks. And I would be very surprised if this turned out differently," Carpenter says.

But Gardiner says the war in Iraq has fundamentally changed the situation in the Middle East, placing pressure on Arab governments to cut off financing for Palestinian terrorism, as well as forcing Sharon to trust Bush as a potential peacemaker.

Judith Kipper of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the summit at least changed the atmosphere after more than 32 months of bloodshed in the Holy Land. She says the key will be whether Bush has the staying power to remain committed to the issue as he grapples with a host of issues, including the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, possible showdowns with North Korea or Iran, and his re-election campaign in 2004.

"The real work starts after the event. And the question is whether the U.S. will put a team on the ground to work with the Palestinians and with the Israelis to make sure the road map gets implemented," Kipper says.

At first glance, however, Bush may soon need a road map to repair U.S. relations with Paris, as well.

His swing through the Middle East, which included a meeting with Arab leaders in Egypt, followed stops in Poland, Russia, and France, where he attended a Group of Eight summit in Evian hosted by French President Jacques Chirac.

Many had hoped his first face-to-face meeting with Chirac since they bitterly fell out over France's opposition to the Iraq war would help mend the frayed trans-Atlantic relationship.

But media reports largely portrayed the encounter as anything but warm. Meanwhile, Bush did not even bother holding a separate meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose re-election campaign last year focused on his opposition to the war.

Chirac greeted Bush with a cool handshake -- hardly the two kisses and hugs the French president bestowed upon some other leaders. Still, for as long as Bush was in Evian, friendly appearances were kept up, says the Cato Institute's Carpenter.

"It was all atmospherics. And it was, at least superficially, very impressive atmospherics. I think in general, [Bush's] trip achieved its purpose. It at least created the image of reconciliation," Carpenter says.

But Bush then left the three-day summit a day early to attend the gathering with Arab leaders, before heading to Jordan. Bush's spokesman said the early exit was not a snub of France. And Chirac said he understood Bush had key meetings to attend. Yet after Bush departed Evian, Chirac, far from mending fences with Washington, opened fire. He again criticized the Iraq war as being what he called "illegitimate and illegal," since it lacked explicit backing from the United Nations Security Council.

Carpenter, however, says that virtually no amount of public bonhomie can paper over the fundamental issue now dividing Washington and Paris.

"The French believe that the U.S. is out of control, that it alone is able to make decisions about whether military action is to occur in a given situation, and that there is no realistic balance of U.S. power. And that alarms the French," Carpenter says.

Indeed, Chirac continued to push his vision of a "multipolar world" in Evian to balance American power. U.S. officials view this with exasperation and distrust. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "We have an alliance. Allies treat each other as partners without regard to poles."

Things went better in Russia. Bush again called Russian President Vladimir Putin a good friend as they and their wives attended celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.

Putin spoke about the need to monitor Iran's nuclear program to make sure Tehran doesn't develop weapons, a key U.S. concern. Russia is helping Iran's nuclear power program.

And Bush, likewise, again signaled support for Russian efforts to fight terrorism. Analysts interpreted that as a sign that Washington will refrain from undue criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya.

Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation says Moscow and Washington share several overlapping interests, such as the war on terrorism.

"The United States recognizes that Russia is a bigger power on the international stage than France and Germany, and perhaps there is more scope in which to work with the Russians on certain issues. And I think Putin is a more pragmatic politician than either Chirac or Schroeder," Gardiner says.

On the first stop of his trip, Bush told Poles in Krakow that they could be both "good Europeans" when they join the European Union next year and good NATO allies.

Poland strongly backed Bush on Iraq. And in his speech, Bush urged the rest of Europe to unite with America to tackle what Washington sees as the key threats of the post-Cold War world -- terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

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