President Bush donned black tie for French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the White House on Tuesday. On Friday, he paid a perhaps even bigger compliment to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: He put on jeans, his much-preferred attire, and drove her in his pickup to his personal home.
Bringing Merkel to his central Texas ranch marked another step in Bush’s aggressive, weeklong charm offensive for two pro-American leaders from Europe. He said he looked forward to their talks in a relaxed setting.
“In Texas, when you invite somebody to your home, it’s an expression of warmth and respect and that’s how I feel about Chancellor Merkel,” Bush said after jumping out of his truck to welcome Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer at the property’s helipad.
“Already a first glance of the area shows that this is indeed a wonderful place,” Merkel told her host.
Along with first lady Laura Bush, the couples drove off in the truck for a short tour of the secluded ranch and a homey dinner of arugula salad, beef tenderloin, sauteed mushrooms, asparagus and cheese grits, topped off with pecan pie and ice cream.
Bush and Merkel’s weekend discussions will be dominated by Iran’s nuclear program, Middle East peace, a dispute over Kosovo’s future status and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bush will urge Germany and other NATO allies to stay in the fight in Afghanistan where violence this year has been the deadliest since the Taliban’s ouster.
Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman, said Bush would like to hear about Merkel’s recent trip to Afghanistan. Merkel, meanwhile, wants to impress upon Bush the need to keep Russia a partner in facing international challenges, at a time when Moscow’s support is crucial for additional sanctions against Tehran for its suspected atomic weapons ambitions.
Warmer ties than predecessor
Upon taking office in 2005, Merkel became one of the president’s closest European colleagues — much closer than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Her reward: a visit to the president’s beloved 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel ranch.
Earlier this week in Washington, Bush feted Sarkozy, putting on an elegant dinner at the White House in his honor and staging their meetings at Mount Vernon, once the home of George Washington. Sarkozy also is much more friendly toward America than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who also clashed with Bush over the war.
Being aligned with Bush, however, carries some political risk for Sarkozy and Merkel, given the president’s unpopularity in Europe. The German leader has aimed to minimize the ill effects by publicly airing some disagreements, such as her belief that the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for terrorist suspects should be shuttered.
On Afghanistan, meanwhile, the president has backed off his criticism of allies in Germany and elsewhere that are not allowing their troops to fight alongside the U.S. in the country’s more dangerous south.
Nations doing 'real harm' to Afghan mission
Nations such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain have restricted their troops to relatively peaceful areas in Afghanistan’s north. The only NATO troops operating in the more violent front-line provinces, where most of the fighting against the Taliban is taking place, are from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Britain.
The issue has caused a rift within NATO and caused officials from the participating countries to try to sway the restricted countries to change course. Just last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a conference of European army leaders, held in Heidelberg, Germany, that some countries’ restrictions on how and where their troops can operate have “done real harm” to the Afghan mission.
But Bush now is taking a softer tack, saying in a pre-visit interview with German reporters that he understands the limitations some countries face. “I’m not going to try to put Angela Merkel in a position that she nor her Bundestag (Germany’s lower house of parliament) is comfortable with,” Bush said.
The two leaders also are expected to discuss their desire for elections in Lebanon that are free from Syrian interference, Kosovo’s desire for independence from Serbia, the recent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar, climate change and trade.
Merkel’s husband is making the rare move of accompanying his wife on official business. The couple hosted the president and first lady Laura Bush for a wild boar barbecue in Germany in the summer of 2006.
“Tomorrow is supposed to be a nice day here in Crawford,” said Johndroe, suspecting the president would make sure that a tour or other outdoor pursuits are in the offing. “He’s fond of taking visitors around and showing off the ranch.”