WASHINGTON – For her symbolic first trip abroad as the new face of U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) is paying special attention to European allies who stuck with the United States through war and its aftermath in Iraq (search).
Britain, the staunchest ally on Iraq, is the first stop. Rice is to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Friday. Later in the trip, Rice will call on Italy and Poland, both countries that sent significant numbers of troops to Iraq despite internal opposition to the war.
She is also offering an olive branch to France — a critic of the Iraq invasion whose people remain suspicious of President Bush's intentions across the globe — by choosing Paris as the site of her first major speech on U.S. goals in Europe and beyond.
Rice will skip Spain, which angered the United States by pulling its troops out of Iraq last April, weeks after terrorists bombed Madrid commuter trains on March 11, killing 191 and wounding more than 1,500.
Iraq and the strained relations of the recent past hang over the weeklong trip to Europe and the Middle East, but Rice will focus on brighter prospects for Bush's second term. Topping the list is the possibility of renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Rice will visit Jerusalem and the West Bank between stops in eight European capitals and the Vatican.
Europeans are expected to watch Rice's tour closely for any sign of the Bush administration's next move in Iraq, as well as its plans for answering nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea. Rice herself will also be the object of curiosity.
Leaders in Europe will press Rice to send at least "subtle signals" to Iran that the United States backs the Europeans' effort to head off nuclear weapons development, said John Bruton, head of the European Commission delegation in Washington.
"The United States is not as engaged as we hoped it might be," he said, even though "we want the same outcome."
The Europeans have offered Iran technological and financial support, and have hinted at a trade deal if weapons development stops. The Bush administration has been cool to the European diplomacy, preferring economic sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, Bush called Iran "the world's primary state sponsor of terror."
Rice's brief diversion to the Middle East is a chance to gauge the pace of improving relations between Israel and the Palestinians. She will meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, and also point to successful elections in Iraq on Sunday as proof of democratic advances in the region.
Bush promised to push forward for Mideast peace, including $350 million in aid to the Palestinians. "The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace is within reach," he said.
A specialist in the former Soviet Union, Rice harkens often to the bleakest days of the Cold War when describing her view of the U.S. role in the world.
She finds inspiration in the U.S. statesmen who pushed Western ideals of democracy and freedom despite the march of communism and totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
"I think they did it by staying firm about values," Rice told State Department employees in a speech Monday.
As she is likely to do in her Paris address, Rice drew a parallel to today's changed world after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The message, surely not lost on Europeans, is that perseverance and high purpose won out in the struggle with communism, and the administration's national security and policy aims will find similar vindication in history.
The Iraq war remains widely unpopular among Europeans and there is persistent hostility toward Bush. Still, a visit from the new secretary of state is a perk for any ally, and one not doled out lightly in Washington.
The U.S. rift with longtime allies France and Germany is the most serious in years. Rice will visit Berlin before Paris. She has acknowledged the gulf, as did Bush soon after his re-election. Bush will visit Europe later this month, and Rice's trip is partly meant to smooth his path.
Rice will also go to Turkey, a crucial ally spanning Europe and the Middle East, Belgium for talks with NATO and European Union leaders as well as with Belgian officials, and Luxembourg.
Although the United States has praised Turkey's help in the global war on terrorism, relations were strained when Turkey refused passage to U.S. troops deploying for war in Iraq.
Rice will meet at least eight heads of state and hold more than 30 meetings with foreign officials, including a working dinner with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Ankara. She will also introduce herself to U.S. diplomats and their staffs at each stop.
Of all the allies, France made the most strenuous effort to prevent the Iraq invasion in March 2003. Nearly two years later, just over half of people in France had unfavorable views of Americans generally, and a majority said they were disappointed by Bush's re-election, AP-Ipsos polling found.
The polling in November showed similar results in Germany and Spain.
In France, Bush's re-election drew headlines like the left-leaning Liberation's "L'empire empire," a play on words that means "The Empire gets worse."