New York Times
June 22, 2006
VIENNA, June 21 — President Bush, visiting this central European city with the aim of promoting trans-Atlantic unity, instead issued an impassioned defense of his Iraq policy today amid pointed reminders of how far the United States has fallen in the eyes of many Europeans.
"That's absurd!" Mr. Bush declared, dismissing a reporter's suggestion that most Europeans regard the United States as a bigger threat to global stability than North Korea, which has proclaimed it has nuclear weapons, and Iran, which is suspected of developing them.
Later, asked about polls showing Europeans have a low opinion of him, the president said: "Look, people didn't agree with my decision on Iraq, and I understand that. For Europe, September the 11th was a moment; for us, it was a change of thinking."
Mr. Bush's heated exchange with European reporters — under the glittering chandeliers of the marble-columned throne room in the Hofburg Palace, once the imperial home of the Hapsburgs — followed a summit meeting between the president and leaders of the European Union, who spent the morning talking about a wide range of issues, from nuclear tensions in North Korea to a faltering world trade agreement.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of Austria, the current president of the European Union, and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, stood by Mr. Bush's side at the news conference. At one point, Mr. Schüssel, stepped into defend Mr. Bush, recalling his own boyhood in post-World War II Vienna, when the city lay in ruins and Americans stepped in to help.
"I think we should be fair from the other side of the Atlantic," Mr. Schüssel said.
Mr. Bush's remarks on Iraq were not substantively different than what he has said before. But the vigor of his defense, coming at a time when he is trying to repair frayed relations with the Europeans and has joined them in trying to negotiate a peaceful end to Iran's uranium enrichment program, underscored how fragile those relations remain.
One particularly contentious issue is the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Mr. Bush is under pressure from the Europeans to close it; the issue was so front and center in the talks that, during the news conference, Mr. Schüssel and President Bush each said the other brought it up first.
"Obviously, they brought up the concern about Guantánamo," Mr. Bush said, reiterating that he would like to close the detention center. But, as in the past, the president said he was waiting for the Supreme Court to determine where those being held there should be tried.
For his part, Mr. Schüssel said: "The president started, himself. He didn't wait that we raise the question. He came up and said, 'Look, this is my problem, this is where we are.' "
The trip to Austria was the first by an American president in 27 years; the last was Jimmy Carter, who met Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev to sign a nuclear arms agreement.
After completing his Vienna visit today, Mr. Bush flew to Budapest where he will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.
The official agenda for the summit meeting included fighting terrorism as well as talks on energy and trade, including the troubled negotiations on the so-called Doha round, a stalled trade-expanding proposal named for the city in Qatar where negotiations. first began. But other matters — Guantánamo, Iran, the killing of two American soldiers captured soldiers in Iraq, and North Korea's work on a long-range nuclear missile — loomed large.
Responding to the announcement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran that he would respond to the offer from the Americans and Europeans by Aug. 22, Mr. Bush said that "seems like an awful long time" to wait, adding, "It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal."
On North Korea, Mr. Bush sidestepped a question about what action the United States might take if a missile is launched. Chancellor Schüssel said the two men discussed "what to do when and if, and there will be a strong response on that." But American officials attending the meeting would not elaborate, and the president was vague.
"The North Koreans have made agreements with us in the past, and we expect them to keep their agreements," Mr. Bush said, adding, "We think it would be in the world's interest to know what they're testing, what they intend to do on their test."
Today's summit meeting reflected what Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, calls Mr. Bush's "delicate minuet" with Europe. The president's trip to Europe in February 2005 went a long way toward soothing tensions, but even then, Mr. Daalder said, Mr. Bush "couldn't help himself but talk about military options." Now, with the president emphasizing a peaceful resolution, political analysts say Mr. Bush has more credibility with European governments, if not the European people.
"I don't think Europeans are ever going to learn to love George Bush; he probably remains the most unpopular U.S. president in history within the European Union," said Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Freedom, a research institution in London.
"I think there has been a remarkable honeymoon between governments and their rhetoric and the way they talk about issues, their desire to find agreement rather disagreement," Mr. Leonard said. "But it is quite fragile; on a whole series of different issues the wheels could come off at any point. Iran is the most obvious."
That honeymoon does not extend to the local press. Mr. Bush's image is plastered around Vienna on the cover of the Austrian news magazine Profil, under the headline "The Mad World of George Bush." On Tuesday, anticipating Mr. Bush's arrival, an Austrian commentator, Hans Rauscher, offered a brutal assessment of the president in the daily newspaper Der Standard.
"George W. Bush is probably the worst president of the past 100 years," Mr. Rauscher wrote. "The world has to suffer him until 2008.
The European opposition to Mr. Bush was underscored by the protests that greeted him today. Hundreds of people marched in Vienna carrying banners reading "World's No. 1 Terrorist," a reference to Mr. Bush, whose policies on Iraq remain hugely unpopular here.
But Mr. Bush was defiant today, citing American aid to Africa to fight the AIDS epidemic, and his declaration that the situation in Darfur amounted to genocide, as examples of how American foreign policy can be both tough and compassionate.
"I will do my best to explain our foreign policy," he said. "On the one hand, it's tough when it needs to be; on the other hand, it's compassionate. And we'll let the polls figure out — people can say what they want to say."