WASHINGTON – President Bush's decision to leave this year's Group of Eight (search) summit in France early may be a sharp reminder of remaining differences after the war in Iraq.
In an interview with foreign journalists, Bush said the summit in Evian — a French alpine spa — provided an opportunity for him to talk with leaders "whether they are in agreement with the United States or have differences."
"The Evian summit will not be a confrontational summit," the French newspaper Le Figaro quoted Bush as saying.
But the White House announced that Bush will cut his own time in Evian to a little over 24 hours. He will leave at midafternoon Monday to fly to the Middle East for intensive consultations with Arab and Israeli leaders aimed at getting Mideast peace talks back on track.
On Friday afternoon, Bush arrived in Krakow, Poland, the first stop on his European and Mideast tour.
Even after pledges of reconciliation, this year's economic summit of some of the world's most powerful countries promises to be one of the most unusual.
While leaders say they will seek agreement on boosting a sluggish global economy, fighting AIDS and promoting Middle East peace — the Iraq war exposed a big rift among trans-Atlantic allies.
France, Germany, Russia and Canada — the four countries that opposed the war — have all sought in recent days to heal the divisions. Their leaders insist they are looking forward to a productive three days of talks.
"Although there is some anxiety, I am convinced that Evian can convey a message of confidence in world economic growth," French President Jacques Chirac said this week in a newspaper interview.
Bush aides say the president will use his European trip — which, besides Poland, will also include a stop St. Petersburg, Russia — to repair damaged relations and point toward future areas of cooperation.
"We have a large common agenda," said Condoleezza Rice (search), Bush's national security adviser.
Bush told foreign journalists he laid the groundwork of the trip by "talking about some great goals that wealthy nations can achieve." He cited fighting AIDS in Africa, enhancing trade to help people out of poverty, addressing famine and dealing with terrorists.
Given the precarious state of the world economy, marked by a sluggish U.S. recovery and the possibility of Europe and Japan toppling back into recession, bickering among the world's major economic powers would not be welcomed by financial markets.
"A lot of people are waiting to see whether the rancor that surrounded the Iraq war spills over into the economic arena," said Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International in New York. "If it does, it would be profoundly destabilizing for financial markets."
The four G-8 countries that opposed the war made a major move last week to get back into good standing with Bush by supporting the U.N. Security Council resolution that gives the United States and Britain a mandate to use Iraq's oil revenues to rebuild Iraq with only minimum input from the United Nations.
But some analysts believe that Bush may still be intent on sending messages about Chirac's vigorous war opposition and the decision by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to make his anti-war stance a major plank in his successful re-election campaign.
Both Chirac and Schroeder said that U.N. weapons inspections should have continued in Iraq and that diplomatic options had not been exhausted before the war.
Bush wants to convey to France and Germany that "there is a price to pay for defying the United States in the way that they did," said Ivo Daalder, who was a National Security Council European expert in the Clinton administration.
Certainly, in the run-up to the summit, the administration went out of its way to emphasize the close ties Bush enjoys with summit leaders who supported the war — Britain's Tony Blair, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi, who was awarded a visit to Bush's ranch last week. Likewise, Bush's visit to Poland will reward a European country that committed troops to the conflict.
Given the discord over Iraq, expectations for actual accomplishments at the Evian summit are low. The wealthy nations will reaffirm their commitments to meeting the U.N. millennium development goals of cutting poverty in half by 2015, but little in new money is expected to be pledged.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the summit leaders to double their aid to developing countries and to drop trade barriers. He said the issues of poverty and development "are of overriding importance for the great majority of the world's people."
Bush this week signed into law a $15 billion program to combat AIDS in poor countries in Africa and the Caribbean and said he would challenge other G-8 countries to boost their commitments.
The discussions at a famed French mountain spa are expected to draw thousands of anti-globalization protesters, but heavy security will keep them on the other side of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
The G-8 is expected to try and get global trade talks back on track, but the prospects are cloudy, given the rising trade tensions between the United States and Europe. Bush last week criticized Europe's ban on U.S. corn, soybeans and other crops that have been genetically modified to boost yields.
Iraq reconstruction and the need for financial support from other countries, Bush's new efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the nuclear threats posed by North Korea and Iran will also be G-8 discussion topics.
While the summit's accomplishments may be small, the size of the countries participating will set a record. In addition to the eight summit countries, Chirac used his prerogative as chairman to invite 12 other leaders representing poor nations in Africa and several major developing nations including China, Brazil and India.
Bush would normally devote considerable time to a string of one-on-one meetings with the other leaders, but this year he will meet briefly only with summit host Chirac and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.