President Bush's weeklong tour through Berlin, Rome, Paris and London appears every bit the glamorous old-style farewell tour with a leisurely schedule, jaunts to country castles and lavish dinners.
But it's actually a high-stakes diplomatic mission, spurred by Bush's fear that Iran is an increasingly urgent threat and that Europe may not take it seriously enough.
Bush has never been popular in Western Europe after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "A lot of people like America. They may not sometimes necessarily like the president but they like America," Bush told a reporter from Slovenia.
So it was puzzling that he decided to buzz through all of Western Europe's Big Four nations this week, risking large protests and pointed questions, instead of choosing, as he usually does, to stop in formerly communist, newly democratic Central and Eastern European countries where he always gets rock-star welcomes.
Iran at the heart of trip
Iran helps solve the mystery.
Bush started his trip Monday in Slovenia, where he will take part in the annual U.S.-European Union summit. He also is staying in Italy to see his old friend Premier Silvio Berlusconi and for his third meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, visiting Germany to chat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, spending two days in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, going to Windsor Castle to see Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, and stopping in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to hail the power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Catholics.
But mostly, Bush is visiting nations and leaders critical to a stepped-up U.S. effort to get new and harsher measures aimed at preventing Iran from proceeding with a suspected plan to build a nuclear bomb. Britain, Germany and France, along with the United States, Russia and China, are developing a package of fresh penalties and incentives aimed at reining in Tehran's alleged atomic ambitions. Italy wants to join the effort, too, and Bush told a television interview that he was open to it.
"He is going to try to stiffen European resolve on Iran," said Stephen J. Flanagan, director of the international securities program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If anything else is going to happen ... those are the countries that are going to deliver."
It's a high priority of Bush's, and he is running against two quickly ticking clocks.
One is his own. His presidency is set to end in a mere seven months.
The other is Iran's. In defiance of the first three rounds of mostly symbolic U.N. Security Council resolutions, Tehran has not only continued its enrichment of uranium, producing material that could be used to power an electricity plant or make a nuclear bomb, but also has expanded and improved it. Assessments vary widely, but it is widely presumed Tehran will have enough fissile material for a weapon within a few years.
Iran's nuclear ambitions
A U.S. intelligence report in December said Iran once had an active warhead program, but shelved it in 2003. But the administration believes that's nowhere near the last word on Tehran's desire for a nuclear weapon. It argues that the continuing enrichment means the military program could be restarted at any time, and without the knowledge of the outside world.
Those competing to succeed Bush, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, have differences over whether to talk to Iran's leaders. But both have pledged to be as tough as Bush — including holding out the threat of force — to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear-armed.
Still, either administration will take some time after the January inauguration to gear up, both in personnel and policy development. And that is time that Bush and his administration fear cannot afford to be wasted.
"It's just this sense of how much time can, in a sense, be lost before the Iranians do something very significant?" Flanagan said.
So the president is on a tour of persuasion.
"I will continue to work on this trip to talk about the dangers of a nuclear Iran — not civilian nuclear power, but a program that would be aimed at blackmail or destruction — and that we've got to work to stop them from learning how to enrich," Bush said in an interview with RAI TV of Italy.
He preceded his European trip, not coincidentally, with a Washington meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The session, with the leader of the nation most afraid of Iran and most hawkish about curtailing its influence, became a platform for tough talk on Iran by Bush.
The president promised that the United States takes seriously the "existential threat to peace" that Iran poses. And his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, spoke cryptically afterward about whether Olmert had asked for the promise of military action. "All I can say, really, is that we've talked a lot about Iran and about the options that are available," Hadley said.
Working for tougher U.N. sanctions
The recent rounds of sanctions out of the U.N. were all mild. Bush wants to shape the next package to be tougher.
In addition, the United States and some others have separate sanctions that go further, and Bush also wants more of those. European countries pursue business relationships with Tehran, which is a major energy supplier, and Washington fears that could undermine the anti-nuclear efforts.
As he departed Washington on Monday, Bush spoke about the sagging economy, rising energy costs and the weak dollar, blamed in part for soaring oil prices.
"A lot of Americans are concerned about our economy. I can understand why," he said, urging Congress to lift restrictions on oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge and offshore on the continental shelf.
Bush, addressing a subject he usually avoids because of the possibility of roiling financial markets, said that "a strong dollar is in our nation's interests. It is in the interests of the global economy." He said the U.S. economy is "large and it's open and flexible. Our capital markets are some of the deepest and most liquid. And the long-term health and strong foundation of our economy will shine through and be reflected in currency values."