Skeptical leaders await Bush on European trip
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush set out Monday for Europe where he will face European and Russian leaders skeptical about his administration's national security and environmental policies.
Bush left the White House on Monday evening for a trip that promises to be a major test of his powers of persuasion and the first glimpse of the strategy and style he will employ in hopes of winning over his colleagues overseas.
Bush will visit Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia in a weeklong tour of the continent, his first as president. It will be his first group interaction with leaders of the European Union and the NATO alliance.
"The press coverage of Bush in Europe has been very negative," Business Week analyst Rick Dunham told CNN. "I think he has to at least show the leaders that he is a person of substance and a person of some knowledge about international issues, because the press coverage has been the opposite in Europe."
His first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is planned for the final stop, in Slovenia, a session added after Moscow indicated more flexibility on the issue of possible amendments to the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
The administration wants to revise or even scrap the treaty as part of its plans for a national missile defense system.
Bush also is expected to address anger at what many European leaders view as U.S. foot-dragging in the debate over global climate change and reducing emissions of so-called "greenhouse gases;" and confusion over Bush's commitment to peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Before leaving, Bush met with the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden. Bush sought Biden's thoughts on a wide range of issues the president will address on the trip, including missile defense. Biden's office called the talk cordial and productive.
It was the first time the two have met since Biden, D-Delaware, became chairman of the powerful committee last week. Biden has been outspoken in the past in his criticism of Bush's positions on missile defense and the possibility of pulling U.S. troops out of the Balkans.
In an interview with CNN, former Clinton administration national security adviser Samuel Berger said "What is important now for the Bush administration, four months in, is to be clear about what its goals are." He said the Bush team must make clear its plans for the Balkans and southeast Europe, in order to build a united continent.
"We have a tremendous opportunity right before us now to finish this job in this area," Berger said. "But that's going to take not just grudging American presence and kind of confusing signals about whether we've got one foot out the door. It's going to take real American participation with the Europeans to try to continue to stabilize the situation and ultimately bring Southeast Europe into NATO."
Bush has favored building personal relationships before confronting major policy concerns, and U.S. officials say no major breakthroughs are likely on this trip. But they are hoping for a NATO communique that is more favorable than past NATO statements on the subject of missile defense.
Overall, senior U.S. officials insist talk of a major early rift with the major allies is grossly overstated.
"The notion somehow that we have tremendous tensions with our European allies I think are, frankly, just not right," said Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
But those looking for specifics from Bush on the trip are likely to be disappointed.
The president promises to suggest alternatives to the Kyoto treaty on climate change, but a high-level administration review of options is just getting under way. A senior administration official told CNN the president's goal for the trip is to convince key allies he takes the issue "very seriously, and is committed to doing something about it at home and in conjunction with our allies and developing nations."
The official said, "there is no timetable attached to this, no deadline. It will be months as opposed to weeks, but not a year."
President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto protocol before he left office but also said he would not submit it to the Senate for ratification until several changes were made. While many European allies are angry at Bush for his opposition to Kyoto, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, said Bush had "brought some honesty" to the issue.
"He has set aside the charade of Kyoto and he is saying we can do it in a better way, a more responsible way," said Hagel, who issued a bipartisan resolution in 1997 against the protocol. "We will come up with an alternative. We want to work with our allies on this and our friends around the world, and we will."
On missile defense, some senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, favor quick deployment of the early stages of a system, including intercept missiles that would be based in Alaska.
But allies have asked for more consultation before Washington makes major decisions, and the Russians have objected even as, in recent weeks, they have indicated some flexibility about the prospect of negotiating changes to the ABM treaty, which would have to be amended or scrapped for the U.S. to deploy the system.
"I think there continues to be serious skepticism and questions in Europe about national missile defense," Berger said. "I think it would be a good opportunity for a president to say, 'We're going to slow down the pace here, we're going to try to really decide what the most important threat is, how we're going to proceed' and not try to ramrod something either through the Europeans or without regard to the consequences for Russia."
After Monday's execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, Bush could also face criticism of his support for capital punishment. Some European leaders and human rights groups Monday condemned the execution as barbaric and bloodthirsty.
Abolition of the death penalty is a condition of membership in the European Union. Lord Russel-Johnston, president of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, was among those condemning Monday's execution, calling it "sad, pathetic and wrong."
The last person executed in EU countries was killed by guillotine in France in 1977. By comparison, Bush presided over 152 executions as governor of Texas.
Bush plans to return to Europe later this summer for the annual meeting of the Group of Eight nations in Genoa, Italy.
CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King and Producer Sarah Ruth contributed to this report.
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