WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) was back in Washington Friday after a whirlwind tour through Europe, where he urged more democratic reform in countries such as Russia and tried to mend fences with nations that distanced themselves during the Iraq war.
White House officials are celebrating that they have found some common ground with European allies on helping in Iraq — even among those who opposed the war.
"I think the president's whole European tour turned out to be very productive," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told FOX News.
"I think this is the — maybe the first step of what's going to be a long journey," Richard Burt, a former arms control negotiator for Russia under President George H.W. Bush, told FOX News.
"There were a lot of difficulties in the U.S.-European relationship. They weren't going to be solved in one week by the president, but I think the president struck both in terms of the tone, saying he was going to be prepared to listen, saying that he supported the idea of greater European unity, and the substance in terms of talking about his own agenda of democracy, while at the same time listening to the Europeans talk about what they think is important.
"Maybe most importantly, there were some hints that the Europeans and the Americans appear to be kind of coming together on the issue of how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program," Burt added.
A Public Whipping?
One of the most anticipated meetings was between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin (search). It was expected that the American president would chastise his Russian counterpart for rolling back democratic reforms and for considering selling nuclear equipment to Iran to help build a reactor there.
Putin told a news conference on Friday he was satisfied with the results of his meeting with Bush in Bratislava, Slovakia, with Bush, saying their talk was useful. But he stressed that Russia did not accept being lectured by the West on how to run its affairs.
"The meeting went in a very positive way, in its character and in the chosen themes," Putin said, adding that he had spoken to Bush for at least an hour in what he called a "very useful, very substantive discussion" focusing on Russian-American relations.
The two leaders talked for 2 ½ hours on Thursday in hopes of easing mounting distrust between Moscow and Washington.
Bush challenged Putin about his government's behavior, saying democracies reflect a country's customs and culture but must have "a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition." He said he talked with Putin about his "concerns about Russia's commitment in fulfilling these universal principles" and about Putin's restrictions on the press.
"I think the most important statement that you heard and I heard was the president's statement, when he declared absolute support for democracy in Russia," Bush said during a joint press conference Thursday. "And they're not turning back. To me, that is the most important statement of my private meeting and is the most important statement of this public press conference."
Putin, also speaking during the joint appearance, said Russia chose democracy 14 years ago and "there can be no return to what we used to have before."
Bush said he told Putin, "Strong countries are built by developing strong democracies. … I think Vladimir heard me loud and clear."
Putin on Friday made no specific mention of Bush's expression of concern about his commitment to democracy.
"I must say that on practically all questions we have very close positions," he said, adding that the two agreed on cooperation to strengthen the security of nuclear materials and installations, and to "intensify our work in the anti-terrorist direction."
"I highly value the results" of the one-on-one talks, said Putin, adding that he and Bush "determined an agenda for the coming three-four years" they have left in office.
But some wondered why Bush didn't more publicly express his displeasure with his foreign counterpart, particularly since he stressed in this year's inaugural address the need to spread democracy.
"Privately, I was hoping the president would take a sharper line" with Putin, P.J. Crowley, former special assistant to President Clinton, told FOX News. "He [Bush] clearly went to bat for democracy yesterday, [but] I thought he swung and missed."
GOP strategist Rich Galen said although Bush's lack of a public scolding may have been disappointing, there's no doubt he pressed his points in private.
"Everybody who follows this that's being fair about it understands that what happened in private was probably pretty severe and that what President Bush was doing was letting President Putin have a little bit of breathing room for home consumption," Galen said.
Nuclear Concessions and Chechnya
Bush and Putin also confronted differences over Moscow's arms sales to Syria and Russia's help for Iran's nuclear program, and the two announced efforts to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism.
They said they were united in their desire to stop suspected nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. But they remained at odds over Russian arms sales to Syria, which the United States wants halted, according to one administration official. Russia — and the Soviet Union before it — has widely sold shoulder-fired missiles to customers around the world.
Another agreement, signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, calls for controlling shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
Bush "made very strong statements before their meeting and throughout the meetings and was very diplomatic and got, I think, some very important concessions from President Putin," Hatch said.
The fact that the Russian president agreed that nuclear proliferation — especially in Iran and North Korea — must be stopped, Hatch said, "that's a very big concession."
It was Bush's first meeting with Putin since the American president opened his second term promising to spread democracy and freedom and asserting that relations with all leaders would be predicated on how they treat their people.
Many political observers and officials were wondering just how hard a line Bush would take with Putin, who's enjoyed a friendly relationship with the American president for the past few years as someone Bush considered a friend of democracy.
"President Putin came to Bratislava knowing he'd be taken to the woodshed by the president of the United States," Galen said. "That's not something he would have ever done with Gerhard Schroeder or with Jacques Chirac or even Tony Blair ... the only person on the planet that could pull this off was — to really stare him in the eye and kind of wag a finger under his nose was President Bush, and he did it, but there was no need for the president to continue that in public."
Burt said Putin likely will keep his word when it comes to continuing on the democratic path, as well as on any nuclear agreement.
"I think [the issue of nuclear arms control has] been a little bit better under Vladimir Putin, but Vladimir Putin also faces problems and pressure at home," including the need for exports such as nuclear equipment, to make up for the lack of commercializing their own technology, Burt said.
On the issue of Chechnya (search), Burt said the Russian people like the fact that Putin is taking a strong hand against the separatists and that they like the idea of having a strong, central state leader.
But "Chechnya is a very serious problem," he said, saying both former President Boris Yeltsin (search) and Putin "made some very serious mistakes there in terms of using military power to put down the rebels there. It's led to some very deep grievances that are simply not going to go away with the application of military force."
Burt added: "The real question is how much more — how many more Russians have to die before Putin is prepared to go to the negotiating table and try to settle this thing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.