Summit pleasantries may not hide bad blood between world leader

Saturday, May 31, 2003

WASHINGTON -- They've been through months of spit-in-your-eye rhetoric, snubs and warnings of "consequences." President Bush and European leaders have a lot of patching up to do after straining relations almost to the breaking point over the Iraq war.

As Bush opened his European trip Friday with a visit to Poland, a country that supported his Iraq policy, the talk was of partnership, cooperation and a new tomorrow.

But even in the rosy chatter it was clear that slights had not been forgotten.

"It's not to say that we didn't have a bad run with some of our closest friends and allies and partners," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "We move on, because that which pulls us together (is) much stronger than anything that might have stretched the rubber band."

At times, the band seemed ready to snap -- with France and Germany, with Russia on occasion, and others, too.

In preliminary weekend meetings and in Group of Eight summit sessions that follow, Bush will sit down with some of his toughest critics from the leadup to the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq.

In Evian, France, Bush's summit partners will include French President Jacques Chirac, host of the summit and source of seething anger in the Bush administration because he thwarted U.S. attempts to win U.N. Security Council backing of the Iraq invasion.

Also at the table: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who ran a re-election campaign that played up his opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq and warned an attack would set the Middle East aflame.

After greeting leaders in St. Petersburg as host for that city's tricentennial celebration, Russian President Vladimir Putin will also be in Evian. He and Bush will be working on a friendship that got off to a strong start before veering off course because of Iraq.

Putin's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, became one of the sharpest critics of the U.S.-led war, at one point declaring icily, "Iraq does not need a democracy which is carried on the wings of a cruise missile."

At their testiest, relations dipped into name-calling.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's communications director, Francoise Ducros, resigned late last year after being overheard calling Bush "a moron," and Germany's justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, was forced to quit after comparing Bush's political tactics to Hitler's.

For their part, Bush's companions will sit with a president whose administration has earned a reputation in much of Europe and beyond as arrogant in its foreign policy and vindictive in holding out the prospect of retribution against those who disagree with it.

They remember that Bush's top advisers met specifically to discuss ways to punish France for standing against the United States in the war. They remember the president making a point of saying he wouldn't be inviting Chirac to the Texas ranch soon.

Before the war, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld snubbed his German counterpart at a NATO meeting and set tongues wagging with his dismissive description of France and Germany as part of "old Europe."

Even the Canada-U.S. relationship, traditionally close, has seen some chill. After U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci sharply criticized Canada for staying out of the coalition that was fighting in Iraq, Chretien canceled a trip to Washington and Bush postponed one to Canada.

"They have a great opportunity to renew the relationship," Lee Feinstein, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of the summiteers. "The question is whether they want to."

If personal rapport is lacking, policy differences may be of more consequence.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the Iraq episode has shifted the strategic calculation across the globe and certainly in Europe," said Shibley Telhami, international relations professor at the University of Maryland.

Other countries are nervous about the Bush doctrine of acting preemptively to deal with a perceived threat such as Iraq, he said, and they want some counterweight to what they see as American unilateralism.

"That is not going to go away," he said, no matter how hard the leaders try to make nice in France.

Other leaders at the G-8 economic summit are settling in for three days of talks in the French Alpine town but Bush is barely staying 24 hours before flying to Egypt and Jordan for a meeting with Arab leaders and then Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Efforts to let bygones be bygones will go on without him -- he'll be gone.

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