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Magazine / COVER STORY

Charm Offensive

February 19, 2005

President Bush's visit to Europe next week will pose one of the more intriguing questions in international relations: Can a second term offer a U.S. president a rare second chance to make a good first impression? Make no mistake, the conciliatory tone and the theme of close consultation that Bush and his new foreign-policy team take to Europe next week bear little resemblance to the style or substance of the first term. The Bush administration, in gambling that it can successfully change its approach to alliance relations, seems once again to be borrowing a page from the playbook of Ronald Reagan. The Great Communicator greatly riled European allies with his early confrontational approach to the Soviet Union, only to win them over in his second term by encouraging "glasnost" and securing historic arms control agreements with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In choosing Europe for his first post-inaugural trip, President Bush will put the capstone on an aggressive campaign of outreach across the Atlantic that began even before he was re-elected. For the French, the extended hand came last fall, with a series of invitations to join other European officials at the White House for brainstorming sessions with senior members and staff of the National Security Council. Needless to say, French officials had received few invitations to the White House after France led the international opposition to the Iraq war. Now, partly as a result of those White House consultations, the once-incessant "battle of the barbs" between Paris and Washington has notably cooled in recent months. On February 21, Bush is scheduled to kick off his European visit with a private dinner with French President Jacques Chirac in Brussels.

For senior German officials in Washington, the outreach campaign began over the Christmas holidays through an exchange of friendly e-mails with Deputy Secretary of State-designate Robert Zoellick. As an undersecretary of State in George H.W. Bush's administration, Zoellick had helped negotiate the 1990 "2+4" treaty formalizing German reunification, and he is considered a friend in Berlin. A relieved Europe has warmly greeted the appointments of Zoellick and Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and respected ambassador to NATO, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's top deputies.

 

The charm offensive reached European Union officials when the White House announced that Bush would make his first visit to E.U. headquarters in Brussels, the capital of European integration, which in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous construct, notably represents both "old" and "new" Europe. That decision seemed to put to rest, at least for the time being, arguments within the Bush administration about whether a more closely integrated Europe represents a positive development or a potential global rival to the United States.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld recently joined his European counterparts for an informal NATO meeting in the French Riviera city of Nice, where Rumsfeld heard allied pledges to increase support for Iraqi reconstruction in the wake of the January 30 elections. Rumsfeld followed up his appearance in France with a trip to Germany to attend a security conference, where he made light of his 2003 comments about old and new Europe. "That was 'old Rumsfeld,' " he said, drawing laughs. "Our collective security depends on our cooperation and mutual respect and understanding."

The rest of Bush's itinerary, which includes meetings with the other members of the "axis of opposition," dispels any doubts that the trip is designed to mend a trans-Atlantic rift. In addition to the dinner with Chirac, Bush plans to stop in Mainz, Germany, for meetings with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and then go on to Slovakia for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Not About Making Nice

The new outreach seems to grow out of the administration's realization that if the United States wants to accomplish anything significant on the international agenda, it is better to have Europe with us than against us.

Former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who is co-chairing an "Initiative for a Renewed Trans-Atlantic Partnership" at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, "The fact remains that on many issues the United States and Europe confront on the world stage, we cannot get anything constructively done unless we cooperate. Even when we approach challenges from different directions, and with different short-term goals, it's important that we operate in concert and not undercut one another."

As Secretary Rice made clear on her own recent trip to Europe, Israel, and the West Bank, the Bush administration's emphasis will be on mending fissures in the alliance created by the Iraq war, and on trying to rally allies behind Bush's vision of democratic reform and the spread of liberty as the central organizing principle in international relations. Bush administration officials and European allies have little interest in rehashing the arguments over Iraq, or in trading mea culpas over the war and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

"This trip is not about 'making nice' with Europe. Rather, it's an outgrowth of the 'freedom agenda' President Bush has announced for his second term, and a realization that the odds of achieving those goals rise enormously if the two great centers of democracy and freedom -- the United States and Europe -- are working together," said a senior administration official. "We want to pull Euro-Atlantic relations off the couch of self-introspection and start having a deeper strategic dialogue that will lead to common assumptions about the nature of the post-9/11 world. Then we can start pulling together on the big issues that confront us all."

Bush administration officials concede that many pundits, and most of the people, in Europe remain openly hostile to U.S. calls to spread democracy. Europeans fear that the lofty rhetoric about liberty's march that dominated Bush's Inaugural Address will translate in practice into a policy of forcible "regime change." Certainly after the controversies surrounding the Iraq war, Europeans remain deeply skeptical of American leaders' grand pronouncements about spreading liberty as the way to victory in the global war on terror.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister, said, "Americans see terrorism as an existential threat, but you never hear Europeans refer to a 'war on terror.' We see terror more as a scourge, like organized crime and drug trafficking." Speaking at a recent conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Palacio affirmed that the United States and Europe have common interests in the Middle East, but she said, "Because of the Iraq intervention and the Abu Ghraib scandal -- and, most especially, Washington's absolute backing of Israel -- the United States is seen in the region as an aggressive, menacing, and 'regime-changing' power that has lost a lot of credibility."

Bush administration officials are well aware that they have not converted the European public and pundits into Bush fans. "But after successful elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, and especially Iraq, I do sense that European governments are now more ready to help," said the senior administration official. "Suddenly, the president's broader Middle East initiative doesn't sound so insane anymore. Even Jacques Chirac recently pointed out that Lebanon was going to hold elections, and he talked about maintaining momentum in that direction. That's a sure sign we're in a very different place in terms of how we view these issues."

Hope and Trepidation

European officials have reacted to the Bush administration's outreach campaign with a mixture of hope and trepidation. Publicly, they have embraced the warmer tone and closer consultations that have characterized relations since Bush's re-election. Bush used his post-election news conference on November 4 to explicitly extend a hand to the Europeans. "Whatever our past disagreements, we share a common enemy," Bush said in his prepared introduction. "I'll continue to reach out to our friends and allies, our partners in the E.U. and NATO, to promote development and progress, to defeat the terrorists, and to encourage freedom and democracy as alternatives to tyranny and terror."

The Bush administration has also backed up the public rhetoric with increased private dialogue, establishing a de facto contact group of senior European officials who meet regularly at the White House. One European ambassador said he had been invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. more often in the past two months than he had in the previous year. Although the change in approach remains mostly stylistic to date, European officials note that, especially in the realm of diplomacy, style and tone actually matter. And the Europeans are not particularly inclined to argue with the White House's motherhood-and-apple-pie rhetoric about liberty and freedom.

What remains to be seen, however, is how U.S. officials and their European counterparts will act when they sit down to discuss the substance of the tough issues that challenge them. "The new Bush foreign-policy team has declared a willingness to listen to their allies more and to take Europe seriously. And, at the moment, most European capitals are eager to give them the benefit of the doubt," said a senior German official. "Whether that will lead to any substantive changes in policy, we don't know yet."

Underlying most of those substantive discussions is the prickly question of how the United States and its European allies can work together again to influence other nations and bring about needed change, whether in terms of Iraq's reconstruction, Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, or the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Any hoped-for synergy, experts say, would have to temper the Bush administration's propensity to wield the sticks of possible military action, combining this aggressive attitude with the Europeans' predisposition to offer only the carrots of economic aid and trade. Both sides admit that they are still dealing, psychologically, with the lingering impact of Iraq, and the distrust created by the diplomatic breakdown that preceded the war.

"We welcome an intensive debate on the question of how you change behavior in foreign countries such as Iran, but we hope it doesn't involve a lot of talk about 'military options,' because we don't think there are any good ones," said the German official. "So far, however, I haven't had a single conversation with U.S. officials who wanted to talk about 'pre-emption,' and I don't plan to bring it up if they don't. If we get bogged down in that debate, the positive attitudes and expectations we're all trying to nurture could quickly reverse, and we could end up with the same frustration level we had after Iraq."

Perhaps nowhere else has the changed tone in trans-Atlantic debate been more obvious than in the U.S.-French dialogue. After the Iraqi elections, Chirac offered generally positive comments, and Rice chose Paris as the venue for the centerpiece speech of her European trip. She called for a "new chapter" in trans-Atlantic relations.

A senior French official said, "There has been a real change in style and show of goodwill on the part of the Bush administration. And we look on the president's trip as a very visible indication that bygones are bygones, and we are embarking on a fresh start in trans-Atlantic relations." The official added, "We don't think that means President Bush's vision or the substance of the administration's policy has changed, because they feel vindicated by their re-election. Between style and substance, however, there are facts on the ground, and the facts have changed in terms of Iraqi elections, in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programs, and in terms of the Middle East peace process after [Yasir] Arafat's death. Those are the three main issues that we think will be most critical to trans-Atlantic relations in 2005."

Hanging Together

For good or ill, the Middle East will very likely prove to be the fulcrum on which the trans-Atlantic relationship pivots in the coming year, and possibly for many years hence. Although optimism rarely goes unpunished in the Mideast, recent events have led many experts to conclude that the Western alliance faces a rare opening for advancing a common agenda. Conversely, failure to capitalize on that opportunity or fashion a common strategy will surely create enduring flash points for trans-Atlantic tensions.

"The Middle East is not only the most dangerous region in the world today, it has tremendous capability for being destructive to the trans-Atlantic relationship," Thomas Pickering, a former deputy secretary of State, said at the recent CSIS conference. Both the United States and Europe, he noted, have strong economic ties to the region, based on its oil resources; both Washington and European capitals have long political links and venerable alliances with various Mideast regimes; and both understand that the region is the hub of Islamic extremism and is thus central to the global war on terror.

"That makes it imperative for the United States and Europe to agree on a common strategy and working plan for the Middle East, and Bush's trip to Europe may open the door to those discussions," Pickering said. "We all don't have to play the same role, but we do need to be more seamless in working together. The more separation there is between our approaches, the more likely we will split, and the greater the potential for failure. In terms of trans-Atlantic relations and the Middle East, I'm reminded of Ben Franklin's warning that we either hang together, or we will probably hang separately."

In terms of new facts on the ground, perhaps none are more promising than the election of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to succeed Arafat and the February 8 summit at which Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a cease-fire. Along with Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza, those events have given the Middle East peace process the first sense of significant momentum since the current intifada began more than four years ago. Rice capitalized on that opening by traveling to Israel and the West Bank on her first trip overseas as secretary of State, and by inviting Sharon and Abbas to separate White House meetings this spring. Rice's comments that both sides in the dispute would now have to make tough choices played particularly well in Europe, where the Bush administration's perceived disengagement from the peace process and lopsided support for Sharon have caused serious consternation over the past four years.

"This is not the first time that the Bush administration has announced, with great fanfare, that they were going to seriously engage on the Middle East peace process. But in the past, each time Sharon said 'Boo!' the administration backed off," David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, told National Journal. "If the administration is really re-engaging, however, it is very desirable that Secretary Rice first consult with our European allies and build a common front. And if the Bush administration is serious about transforming the Middle East, I firmly believe that reaching a peace settlement that includes a decently governed and democratic Palestinian state living in peace with Israel would indeed be a transformative event," Mack said. "That would give heart to reformers throughout the Middle East."

When it comes to Iraq, the relative success of the January elections has encouraged European officials to promise Bush more support in the country's reconstruction and in the training of its security forces. France recently offered to help train 1,500 Iraqi paramilitary forces outside the country, for instance, and Germany has suggested it is willing to expand its training program for Iraqi police that is based in the United Arab Emirates. During Rice's trip to Europe, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that all 26 NATO countries had made a general commitment to help train Iraqi security forces. Meanwhile, after a late-January visit to Poland by Vice President Dick Cheney, Polish officials, who had already decided to withdraw 700 troops from Iraq, deferred a decision on whether to withdraw the remaining 1,700. In terms of new or additional troops for the Iraqi coalition, however, U.S. officials are generally resigned to the reality that Europe will be sending few.

"After the Iraqi elections, I think many European countries are more willing to work closer with the United States and upgrade their programs to help the Iraqis, whether they involve training Iraqi security forces, educational outreach, cultural exchanges, or reconstruction aid," said a European ambassador. "At this point, no one gives a damn about who was right and wrong on the Iraq war. It happened. The question we all confront is how we can help make sure that Iraq doesn't remain a festering wound in the region."

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