BRUSSELS, Belgium – Only months after he criticized countries "like France," President Bush was lavish in his praise of French President Jacques Chirac (search), one of the sharpest critics of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"I'm looking for a good cowboy," Bush said Monday when a French reporter asked him whether relations had improved to the point where the U.S. president would be inviting Chirac to the U.S. president's ranch in Texas (search).
Chirac had equally kind words to say about Bush, saying he and the American president "always had very warm relations."
Iraq? Merely a blip in ties between the two countries that have been "excellent for over 200 years now," Chirac said.
"Now, of course, that doesn't mean that because we share common values, we don't necessarily agree on everything all the time," Chirac added, "That doesn't necessarily mean we agree on everything at every time."
The two leaders spoke with reporters before they sat down to dinner of lobster risotto and filet of beef with Bordelaise sauce.
"This is the first dinner since I've been re-elected on European soil, and it's with Jacques Chirac. And that ought to say something. It ought to say how important this relationship is for me, personally, and how important this relationship is for my country," Bush said.
A White House official later said Chirac was expected to visit Bush in the United States this year, but neither a date nor a location had been determined.
Chirac led the opposition on the U.N. Security Council in 2003 to the Iraq War, opposed efforts by NATO (search) to expand its presence in the country, and has refused to send French forces to Iraq to train police.
His staunch opposition to the war at one point prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — then Bush's national security adviser — to reportedly suggest that after the war, the United States should "punish France, ignore Germany and reward Russia."
Bush last October, while campaigning for re-election, declared that Democratic rival John Kerry would let "countries like France" decide when to use American force.
But all was sweetness and light on Monday on Bush's five-day fence-mending tour of Europe.
The two leaders emphasized how they were working together — on peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan, the Balkans, on Asian tsunami relief, Africa aid programs and in putting pressure on Syria to withdraw troops from Lebanon.
The two leaders even issued a joint statement calling for passage of a U.N. resolution insisting that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon and calling for a full investigation into the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister — which some reports have linked to Syria.
It was their first one-on-one meeting since they met in Sea Island, Ga., last June at the Group of Eight economic summit.
Then, when they addressed reporters, Chirac did not mention the dispute over Iraq but spoke instead of how much he had enjoyed food at the summit. "Over the last few days, this cuisine here in America was certainly on a par with French cuisine," he said.
"He particularly liked the cheeseburger he had yesterday," Bush quipped at the time.