With the first foreign trip of his second administration now behind him, President George W. Bush has given initial indications of the course he wishes to take on several key issues, especially Iran.
Mr. Bush knew he had a problem with key allies because of the way he handled the war in Iraq. Fixing that was at the top of the agenda for the meetings in Europe this week. The best and most practical news he got was at NATO where all twenty-six members agreed the organization should help train and equip Iraqi security forces. Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, but no one said "no."
Since NATO works by consensus -- any one country could have nixed the idea --it was clearly a victory for the Bush administration and sent the signal that any past disagreements over Iraq are just that: past disagreements. The President and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who paved the way for Mr. Bush's trip with one of her own earlier this month, reasoned that the focus now needed to be on how to go forward in Iraq and not continue to be hamstrung by disagreements over why the Bush administration went to war in the first place.
European leaders, especially those in France, Germany and Russia who led the opposition to the Iraq war policy of the first Bush administration, essentially agreed to let bygones be bygones. They are all politicians, after all, and they realize they have to deal with the Bush administration for the next four years.
Good news on Iraq, however, does not mean there are no remaining points of contention between European capitals and Washington. It was clear from Mr. Bush's meetings this week that the newest issue of concern is Iran, or more precisely, what approach to take in the effort to persuade Tehran to drop its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapons capability.
Great Britain, Germany and France -- the so-called EU-3 -- have taken the lead in dealing with Iran on this issue, with the U.S. holding back from direct participation in the diplomacy. While the Europeans would like Washington to become more actively involved, Mr. Bush seems unwilling to do so.
In fact, it became something of an art form this week untangling the President's various statements on Iran. First, Mr. Bush said: "This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous." The President then said: "And having said that, all options are on the table." The second half of that mixed message left already skeptical Europeans shaking their heads, trying to figure out just what the American president's position really was. The next day Mr. Bush, trying to clear up the confusion, said the "all options are on the table" portion of his remarks was indeed part of U.S. policy, "But I reminded people that diplomacy is just beginning. Iran is not Iraq."
The bottom line, for now, is the Bush administration does not want to reward Iran's leaders for bad behavior (not living up to previously agreed to arrangements on its nuclear program) and therefore will not join the EU-3 in direct negotiations. It nevertheless believes diplomacy is the way to resolve this problem. A question left open is whether Washington will buy into the Europeans' notion of offering Iran economic incentives to influence the direction of its nuclear program.
To help resolve the problems with Iran, Washington needs Russia's help, since they are selling fuel to Iran for its new reactor and providing other technical help. President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed Russia's pledge that any spent fuel would have to be returned to Russia, thus making it unavailable for use by Iran in nuclear weapons.
In his discussions on other issues, Mr. Bush was unable to persuade Europeans not to lift an arms embargo against China, potentially increasing the tensions between China and Taiwan. And there was open questioning of Putin's commitment to democracy. Mr. Bush, having set out numerous markers about freedom and democracy, was being watched to see just how tough he would be on Putin. While many will question just how tough Mr. Bush was on Putin over the democracy issue, on the bigger and more threatening issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities, there appears at least on the surface a consensus concerning the approach to Iran.
"Hopefully we'll be able to reach a diplomatic solution," said Mr. Bush in Germany. "I know we're all on the same page on this issue." After his meeting with Putin in Bratislava, the President said, "We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that."
Overall, this was a good series of meetings for President Bush. Europe's political leaders showed they are now focused on pending problems. On some they found common ground, on others differences remain and the best that can be said is they agreed to disagree.
It could have been a lot worse.
By Charles Wolfson