Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S./Europe: Bush Visit Carries Complicated Symbolism

U.S. President George W. Bush is embarking on a visit to Europe on 4 June, which will take him to Rome and Paris, then to the beaches of Normandy, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the allied troop landings in 1944. The visit is an important moment for Bush, who seeks to draw parallels between his campaign to democratize Iraq and the Mideast region, and the successful rehabilitation of Europe after World War II. But there are complications, not least among them the major demonstrations expected against his Iraq policy.

Prague, 3 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The first week of June 1944 was a bad time for Nazi Germany.

On the sultry morning of 4 June, U.S. General Mark Clark led allied troops into Rome to end the Nazi occupation. There was no fighting, as German forces had withdrawn in a prior agreement to save the city from destruction.

Two days later, allied forces stormed onto the beaches of occupied Normandy in France amid withering fire, beginning the land invasion that eventually took them victorious across the Rhine.
"What [the Americans and British] really need to be doing with the Europeans now is recognizing that we have reached a certain point in Iraq, and trying to be creative about solutions to get beyond that. Now they need to get the Europeans [engaged] in this."

Tomorrow, on the 60th anniversary of Rome's joyous liberation, U.S. President George W. Bush arrives in the city to a different, less predictable atmosphere.

The threat of terrorist attack is ever present. Some 10,000 police and soldiers will be deployed around the city, jet fighters will be constantly in the air, ground-to-air missiles will be at the ready, and hospitals will be on alert.

And although he will receive a warm welcome from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of his main allies in the campaign in Iraq, Bush is facing promised mass demonstrations in the streets of Rome against the Iraq intervention. Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu says he fears trouble.

In remarks a few days ahead of his trip, Bush recalled the sacrifice the United States made to free Europe and Japan from fascism and militarism. Speaking about the dedication of a new war memorial in Washington, he said.

"The World War II Memorial will stand forever as a tribute to the generation that fought that war, and to the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives. Because of their sacrifice, tyrants fell; fascism and Nazism were vanquished; and freedom prevailed," Bush said.

Bush sought to show the continuity of the American desire to promote freedom and democracy in the world. He said that today freedom faces new enemies and that "a new generation of Americans has stepped forward to defeat them." Referring to the U.S.-led military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said: "Two terror regimes are gone forever, and more than 50 million souls now live in freedom. Our mission continues, and we will see it through to victory."

The problem is that -- however fondly they recall the American soldiers of more than half-a-century ago -- most Europeans today oppose the war in Iraq. From the European perspective, the conflict was a mistake which has increased rather than lessened the danger of international terrorism and instability.

While in Rome, Bush will also have a Vatican audience with Pope John Paul II, a prominent critic of the war.

A senior analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, Mark Joyce, says Bush must view his trip as a means of repairing the deep trans-Atlantic rift over Iraq, and also the split among the European allies on the issue. "One of the underlying purposes of Bush coming to Europe is to try to bring the Europeans back into the fold, particularly the major allies like Germany and France," Joyce said.

After Rome, Bush will be seeing French President Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, his two most powerful opponents on the Iraq war.

He holds talks in Paris with Chirac, then continues on to the Normandy beaches, where he will attend commemoration ceremonies on 6 June along with Schroeder and others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With Chirac, the commemoration will be a welcome moment to look back on a shared purpose, namely the defeat of Nazi Germany, after a year of harsh recrimination between Paris and Washington over the Iraq war.

With Germany, the symbolism is more complicated. At Normandy, it cannot escape the dark reminder of its past, even though now, 60 years on, Berlin is a cornerstone of peaceful European integration.

London-based analyst Michael Cox, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, points to the ambiguity which has arisen over Iraq, which is the clearest U.S.-German difference since World War II.

"We are 60 years on since D-Day, and Germany has been a friend and ally of the United States -- up and down over the last couple of years -- but in Germany overall, there is a very powerful public opinion which is running against Bush [even though] overall attitudes to the United States in Germany are more positive," Cox said.

Joyce notes, however, that Bush's visit to Europe comes at propitious moment. A new interim Iraqi government has been formed in Baghdad, which takes back sovereignty on 30 June. And the United States and Britain are pressing ahead with a new UN resolution which they hope will lead to greater international involvement in rebuilding Iraq. As analyst Joyce put it, now is the time to engage the continental governments in the Iraq issue in a positive and forward-looking way.

"What [the Americans and British] really need to be doing with the Europeans now is recognizing that we have reached a certain point in Iraq, and trying to be creative about solutions to get beyond that. Now they need to get the Europeans [engaged] in this," Joyce said.

The Normandy commemoration will, of course, not be a day only for gray-suited politicians. On the windy shore will be some of the old men who braved the beaches as youths and lived to tell the tale. As a gesture, France has conferred its highest award, the Legion of Honor, on 100 U.S. veterans, and is flying them over the Atlantic and lodging them at top hotels for the event.