Safely re-elected to a second term after a campaign in which the war was front and center, President Bush is moving aggressively to look beyond the turmoil in Iraq and assert U.S. influence in other parts of the world, particularly Europe, administration officials said Friday.
The president announced during a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he would travel to Europe as soon as possible after his second inaugural, on Jan. 20.
“In my second term, I will work to deepen our trans-Atlantic ties with the nations of Europe,” Bush told reporters at the White House. “We must apply the combined strength and moral purpose of Europe and America to effectively fight terror and to overcome poverty and disease and despair, to advance human dignity and to advance freedom.”
The goal, Bush said, would be “to remind people that the world is better off — America’s better off, Europe is better off — when we work together.”
A senior Bush administration official told NBC News on condition of anonymity that the trip was scheduled in just the last few days as part of an “intense period” of outreach to the European community.
“A re-elected Bush administration is sending the signal we want to work with Europe,” the official said.
Bush was likely to visit Brussels, Belgium, in February for meetings at either the European Union or NATO or both, the official said. In another step aimed at mending fences, Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, held an hour and a half of talks with her French counterpart, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne.
Fences to mend
Talk of a trans-Atlantic rift has persisted long after the debate over the Iraq war in the United Nations.
Relations with Germany have improved, and U.S. ties with Central and Eastern European countries are generally warm. But the perception that relations overall remain sour are fueled by Bush’s low popularity levels in Europe, France’s continued skepticism of U.S. power and the election of a socialist government in Spain earlier this year that led to a pullout of the country’s 1,300 troops in Iraq.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has even had a difficult time getting a call through to Bush to congratulate him on his re-election.
Even so, the administration has sent several signals in recent days designed to heal the divisions.
Within 10 days of Election Day, Bush has met publicly with two foreign visitors, both from Europe: NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Wednesday and Blair on Friday. Secretary of State Colin Powell also announced an ambitious round of fence-mending meetings during European travel scheduled for early next month.
Blair heartily endorsed Bush’s view. “I think there is a tremendous desire and willingness on the part of certainly our partners in the European Union to make sure that that alliance is strong,” he said.
As part of that effort, two other key items were on the discussion table for Blair’s visit: Iran and global warming.
Blair wants Bush to allay European fears that the United States would take military action against Iran. The United States wants Iran dragged before the U.N. Security Council to face sanctions, claiming it is trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran contends that its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at generating energy.
Blair, meanwhile, would also like Bush to soften his rigid opposition to the Kyoto international climate treaty, which goes into effect early next year without U.S. participation. Expressing concern about U.S. jobs, Bush is holding fast to his rejection of the treaty.
Push for Palestinian state
Alongside Blair, Bush also spoke of support for giving more help to Palestinians — a position desired by many European leaders.
“We’ll mobilize the international community to help revive the Palestinian economy, to build up the Palestinian security institutions to fight terror, to help the Palestinian government fight corruption and to reform the Palestinian political system and build democratic institutions,” Bush said.
Bush and Blair said Friday that they had agreed to “finish the job” of promoting democracy across the Middle East, in addition to establishing a free Iraq.
That includes nurturing a democratic Palestine, Bush told reporters at a joint news conference, saying the death of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had provided “a great chance to establish a Palestinian state” and a broader peace in the Middle East.
“I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state,” Bush said with Blair at his side. “I believe it is in the interests of the world that such a truly free state develop. I know it is in the interest of the Palestinian people.”
But Bush added that it was up to Palestinians to elect a democratic government and Arafat’s successors to allow freedoms to take root. “We’ll hold their feet to the fire to make sure that democracy prevails,” he said.
Israel welcomes moves
Israel endorsed Bush’s message.
“There is a two-state solution based on the fact that they have to first stop terrorism before there is a state,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “Bush is putting it as a challenge to the future Palestinian leadership.
“He says, ‘It’s up to you and you have a new situation.’ ... The fact is that there is a new era now,” Gissin said. “He is urging them to drop the Yasser Arafat legacy.”
Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, will fly to Washington to meet Monday with Powell. Shalom said this week that the new Palestinian leadership “will have to prove itself” before a peace process can go forward.
On Iraq, Bush warned that violence could escalate further there as elections neared, but he insisted that the U.S. coalition would prevail. “We’ll continue to stand with our friends, and we will finish the job,” he said.
Blair, who lost political ground at home for being Bush’s steadfast comrade in the war, remained on the team. “I have no doubt at all ... that we will overcome those difficulties” facing coalition troops in Iraq, he said.
Bush thanked Blair for being “a statesman and a friend” and said U.S.-British relations had never been stronger.