WASHINGTON – Over the span of a week in Europe in February, President Bush (search) will try to convince skeptical allied leaders that he means to work with them — up to a point.
It will be a charm offensive by a president who shows no sign of giving ground in making foreign policy decisions on the basis of what he considers best for America, and only hopefully, in tandem with the Europeans.
But the trip also could produce results.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) is hoping for an improvement in U.S.-French relations.
James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state for Europe, sees the possibility of common ground on Iraq and the Middle East.
If Iraq and the Palestinians (search) hold successful elections before Bush's trip, the U.S. and European agendas would coincide in supporting the victors and in making the stability of both Palestine and Iraq a top priority, Dobbins said Thursday.
"So we could have a lot more to work with if things go well," said Dobbins, director of international security and defense policy for the Rand Corp.
But a former Polish deputy foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, foresaw more trouble ahead. For example, he said, the United States must tread carefully in its response to the effort by some members of the European Union, such as Germany and France, to persuade the EU to lift its 15-year-old arms embargo on China.
"U.S. aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait do not want to be attacked with good French Exocet missiles," Sikorski said Thursday.
On Iraq, Sikorski said, Europe and the United States will have to agree to disagree. The passions of the French and German electorates may not allow the leaders of those countries to make a gesture of reconciliation, he said.
"Once you let the genie of anti-Americanism out of the bottle, it is very difficult to get it back in," said Sikorski, who now directs the new Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
Bush demonstrated his independence in going to war in Iraq without French, German and Russian support. And he refuses to cave in to European demands for U.S. pressure on Israel to make difficult concessions to the Palestinians.
After winning re-election last month, Bush said he would continue his philosophy of taking action, if necessary, "in order to protect our country first and foremost," even as he expressed a desire to try to "reach out to others and explain why I make the decisions I make."
Bush's European travel will be his first overseas venture in his second term. It will begin Feb. 22 at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels, Belgium, a reminder of how important the United States has been to European security over the decades.
"NATO would not exist if it had not been for the United States," former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook acknowledged in an appearance at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank.
Bush also will meet with the European Union that day and is expected to address at some point the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, a stop not yet announced by the White House.
He will face French President Jacques Chirac, perhaps his harshest — but not only — European critic. Thursday, Powell said he hoped the U.S.-French relationship could be improved, and that "it is not as bad as people say it is."
Besides, "we are always looking for ways to improve the relationship," Powell told France 3 Television.
James Steinberg, a Brookings Institution vice president who was deputy national security adviser during the Clinton administration, said Bush undoubtedly was trying to be more sensitive in his second term to trans-Atlantic relations.
"But at the end of the day, whether this rift can be healed depends on both sides being willing to respond to the concerns and interests of the other," Steinberg said. On Bush's part, that would mean tackling the Middle East and "taking seriously international law and international institutions."
Former Prime Ministers Antonio Oliveira Guterres of Portugal and Nyrup Rasmussen of Denmark saw the problem rooted in U.S. misunderstanding of Europeans.
Speaking at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, Rasmussen said some Americans think of Europeans as "soft people." But, he said, "we don't compromise about freedom, democracy, and security and prosperity for everybody."
And Guterres said, "the United States feels itself as the country that is struggling for democracy and for human rights everywhere" and that "Europeans tend to be soft and unable to assert themselves and having their hands tied in a kind of ineffective multilateralism."