Politicus: A bold Bush-2 gesture toward European allies?

Posted in Europe | 26-Oct-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. President George W. Bush.
WASHINGTON Vast office, limousine-length couch. A senior administration official is talking about the European allies. From the loyalist and concerned to the disabused and obstructive, the issue was the possibility of better relations between them and the United States during a Bush-2 presidency.

Could Europe suppose, the official was asked, that Bush-2 could turn an about-face on its rejection of the Kyoto environmental treaty? No. Back off from its refusal to participate in an international criminal court? No. Or quit its opposition to the European Union’s lifting its embargo on supplying arms to China? No, as well.

The answers were unhesitating.

So was a list of positive responses. There was room, the senior official said, for ‘‘more active’’ U.S.-Europe cooperation on finding peace in the Middle East, and a need for more joint undertakings in Africa. If the Europeans could succeed in talking nuclear sense into Iran, ‘‘then God bless them.’’ And there was even mention of good chances for compromise on a method to bind up the long-bleeding U.S.-EU subsidy dispute about Boeing and Airbus.

But the administration is asking itself a greater question about getting Bush-2 started on a renewed, consensual track. It’s whether an immediate, bold, presidential post re-election gesture in the Europeans’ direction would make a difference in regenerating the allied relationship and, collaterally, washing some confidence back toward the Bush approach on Iraq.

A European official in Washington talked in parallel fashion about hearing of something symbolic and resonant from the Americans should Bush win. Resolution of the Boeing-Airbus dispute would be extremely positive, he said, although it is hard to think of that in itself dramatically brightening what has been a climate of darkly crusted mutual disdain.

If Bush were to listen to his friend Tony Blair’s concerns, the bold gesture would involve pressing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with greater European participation.

But this is not what the administration is saying, particularly before the election. Rather, another American official described a current internal discussion about ‘‘how much Europe is capable of acting in concert with Washington in the global arena when the issue is not defending Europe.’’ In short, the issue inside the administration is determining whether the big gesture play is worth it.

The president, the official said, ‘‘is committed to working with Europe, but it’s got to be more outwardly focused.’’ Decoded, that probably means being credited by Washington for seeing the great threats in the world beyond its borders — nuclear arms proliferation, jihadist terrorism — rather more in the manner Bush does.

If it is judged there is a kind a of U.S-European fit here, the timing of the gesture would be for sometime soon after the election. As far as Iraq is concerned, the official said ‘‘you don’t need to get Falluja and the Sunni triangle under control’’ to move ahead.

But what would a hopefully resounding undertaking — in no way a mea culpa on Iraq — yield in places like France and Germany? Both countries, particularly during recent trips by both Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder to Asia, have continued to suggest that their ongoing desire is to make Europe into a distinct global pole, characterized by its readiness to play counterweight to the United States for the rest of the world.

An argument against trying to please Europe’s recalcitrants is that France and Germany, in many respects, have turned their opposition to the Iraq war into the divine writ of a genesis legend for the future of a Europe ‘‘emancipated’’ from America.

The response of the official backing the idea of a big gesture toward Europe: Don’t concentrate on France; consider the overall picture with a reasonable degree of assurance that the ‘‘German establishment’’ wants to return to a position closer to the United States and Britain.

There is a further stated justification for reaching out to the Europeans. The fact was, the official said, that NATO, with European cooperation, had largely become the outwardly facing, 21st-century alliance the administration sought. And the European Union, he said, now had a strategy document that was substantially compatible with the administration’s approach to modern security challenges.

If there were to be a Bush-2 change in tonality in all of this, it would seem to be in damping down the discourse that European small-think and institutional immobility are all Europe brings to trans-Atlantic relations.

Apart from the discussion within the administration, described as involving all areas of government and relating to the possibility of Bush-2 personnel changes (read the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld), a new Bush presidency would have opportunity to quickly verify Europe’s frame of mind en route to any grand gesture.

Starting two weeks after the election, and until Christmas, there will be three international meetings at the level of foreign ministers in Egypt, Morocco and Brussels on Iraq’s future, the broader Mideast initiative, and trans-Atlantic security cooperation.

Looking at the notion of a modified, Bush-2 approach, Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said it would reasonable for Europe to expect to find an administration characterized and perceived as more friendly and personable.

‘‘I think that will in fact take place as we move toward common Middle East goals,’’ he said.

‘‘My optimism is based on the assumption that we don’t spend all our time in recriminations on how we’ve gotten to where we are.’’

Did that mean, in an American perspective, there was a way to move Europe toward less passivity? Lugar, whose grasp of detail and nuance sometimes leads to complex replies, chose the concise route.

‘‘Not overnight,’’ he said.