Sunday, February 27, 2005

George Bush’s whirlwind trip through Europe erased one of his presidency’s biggest criticisms — that America has lost the support and respect of major Western allies.

That complaint, repeated through the 2004 campaign by John Kerry and other cranky Democrats who believed voters really cared what French and German leaders thought of us, was heard nowhere last week among European leaders.

There was Mr. Bush schmoozing, dining and joking with a far more subdued and tolerant French President Jacques Chirac, who has finally, grudgingly come to terms with Mr. Bush’s bold, pre-emptive toppling of Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime — or at least has accepted it as a, in the French term, fait accompli.

And Mr. Chirac, chastened by the Iraqi election success and its effect in the Middle East, was now willing to help Iraqis strengthen their struggling young nation and backing the European Union’s promise to help train Iraqi police and other security forces.

So there they were, Messrs. Chirac and Bush, standing side-by-side like old friends, telling Syria in a tough joint communique to get its 14,000 troops out of Lebanon. Mr. Chirac, who likely will visit the U.S. later this year, noted that the two countries’ relations have been “excellent for over 200 years now.”

After meeting separately with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Ukraine President Victor Yushchenko, Mr. Bush was off to Germany where he and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder jointly delivered a strong indictment of Iran’s continuing effort to develop nuclear weapons and reiterated their intention to stop it from doing so.

Germany, too, is supporting U.S. efforts to aid Iraqis’ rebuilding of their country and train Iraqi security forces. Mr. Schroeder also did not back Mr. Bush’s military venture against Saddam, but that’s all in the past. What matters now is building a stable Iraq government strong enough to crush the terrorists there.

Differences remain between us, of course. For example, European leaders are pushing concessions with the Iranians to buy an agreement to end their nuclear program. But Mr. Bush doesn’t like making payoffs to Iran’s mullahs anymore than he is willing to do so in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threats.

Still, Mr. Bush listened to Mr. Schroeder and said he would get back to the EU leaders after he had discussed it further with his national security advisers.

There is also strong disagreement over our opposition to a decision by European leaders to lift the arms embargo set against China after brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown 15 years ago. Mr. Bush spoke out very strongly against it.

So differences persist on this policy and that, but there is more that unites us — increased trade and a strong, peaceful Iraq — than divides us. It is not the Atlantic partnership it once was, but has turned instead into an “a la carte partnership,” where we can work together on things that we agree on and agree to disagree on others, says Francois Heisbourg of the International Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris.

The president’s trip took place at a time of improvements or at least steps forward on a broad range of foreign policy hot spots.

Iraq’s successful preliminary elections, which Mr. Bush said would have a rippling effect across the Middle East, seem to be doing just that. There is growing enthusiasm for democratic elections in Saudi Arabia, where Arabs this month held their first municipal elections in the Riyadh area, the first in that country since 1963.

The Saudi kingdom’s rule seems solid for now, but February’s limited elections have clearly stirred enthusiasm and support for other elections there. Local elections soon will be held in eastern oil-producing regions as well as the city of Jiddah.

In the wake of the Saudis’ experiments with democracy, a “palpable wave of enthusiasm has spread across the kingdom,” The Washington Post’s correspondent Steve Coll reported from Jiddah last week. That’s a very promising sign in a land that has been a breeding ground for terrorism.

In Asia, meanwhile, there were signs of a change of heart — or at least of strategy — from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who had refused to return to the six-party talks about ending his rogue nation’s nuclear weapons program. Last week, he dropped that stance, after Mr. Bush said the United States would never agree to the bilateral meetings Mr. Kim demanded. North Korea will either meet with neighboring countries and the U.S. together or there will be no meeting, the president said.

Suddenly, Mr. Kim sings a different tune: “We will go to the negotiating table anytime if there are mature conditions for the six-party talks,” given U.S. “trustworthy sincerity,” Mr. Kim said.

Throughout the postwar insurgency in Iraq that led to its elections, Mr. Bush’s war critics both here and in Europe called him “stubborn” and a go-it-alone unilateralist who had plunged relations with our allies to its lowest point in years.

They aren’t calling him that now.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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