Monday, February 28, 2005

BERLIN. — Could be a case of “been down so long it looks like up to me,” but I felt a new and distinct breeze blowing though trans-Atlantic relations here, and for a change it is warm. I think there are two main reasons, one broadly understood in outline but perhaps not in detail, one not yet much appreciated at all.

The Bush administration has, of course, launched a charm offensive, first with the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to European capitals, then with the president’s own trip, which began in Brussels — an important signal that Mr. Bush means to take Europe seriously as Europe, not just as a collection of countries in Europe among which the United States can pick and choose. He combined that gesture with a broad endorsement of European integration.

To the extent that suspicions of a favored administration course of “divide and conquer” linger, this trip may help dispel them — especially if Europeans manage to glean at last the essential operating characteristic of this administration: It’s Mr. Bush who sets policy; the surest guide to administration policy is accordingly to listen to what he is saying.

This will come as news in European quarters that have been laboring under a false impression of Mr. Bush for, lo, these four years now. This impression, which was fostered in part by members of the European diplomatic corps in Washington in turn operating under the undue influence of the part of the Washington establishment that was out of sympathy with Mr. Bush from the beginning, essentially portrayed the American president as an empty suit. The battle for policy in his administration, in this view, was really between the sweet reason of his secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the unholy axis of manipulation of Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon neoconservatives and the hard-liners in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. As for his national security advisor, Miss Rice, she was ineffective in imposing discipline on the policy process.

This misses the essence. Especially in the post-September 11 crucible, the policy was the president’s. He was not manipulated. It wasn’t that the process failed Mr. Powell; the secretary lacked influence on the merits and was the weaker for his unwillingness to be fully on board with the president’s policy. And as for Miss Rice, it has become painfully obvious to her critics that they have badly underestimated her.

The less appreciated aspect of the charm offensive is that had it been only charm, Europeans would have found it offensive. There was substance to it as well. If Mr. Bush had gone to Europe and sounded once again only the main themes of his foreign policy vision promoting freedom, then regardless of how well he had re-articulated them, the result would have been, if not a dud, a sense of disappointment created among his listeners.

Instead, Mr. Bush spoke to the issues that are of paramount concern to Europeans. The substance of the Brussels speech was about Israel-Palestine, Topic A on the European foreign policy agenda. Mr. Bush treated the subject with the seriousness Europeans have long desired but not expected from him. It’s a speech they wished they had heard long ago — except, of course, it was not possible for Mr. Bush to give it long ago. It required the emergence of new Palestinian leadership. It is quite possible that we will look back on the death of Yasser Arafat as a decisive moment not only in Middle East peacemaking but also in trans-Atlantic relations.

Topic B was the E3 (Britain, France, Germany) diplomatic initiative on Iran’s nuclear program. Here, Mr. Bush made it clear that the United States is standing with the E3 as they pursue “objective guarantees” that Iran has decided not to build nukes. The administration seems prepared to reward Iranian good behavior, a la Libya’s disarmament, but will not reward bad behavior, a la the North Korea “Agreed Framework.” And, of course, in the event of bad behavior, such as an end to the suspension of fuel reprocessing, a key step on the way to a bomb, Europeans seem to be indicating that they will join the United States in pursuit of tougher steps. I don’t say that this will work, nor that we stay together to the end, whatever form it takes. But we’re together for now, so diplomacy gets a real test.

Now, the truly surprising element of the warming trend: ahem, Iraq — and not that we have “put Iraq behind us,” as is often said, but that Iraq is front and center. The impact of the Jan. 30 election in Iraq was huge and is still gaining. The progress toward democracy is emerging as a source of post-facto legitimation for U.S. action.

This seems to be coming as something of a system shock to Europeans. No, of course, Iraq didn’t go nearly as well as Mr. Bush had hoped. But now, suddenly, Iraq is going far better than most Europeans imagined possible. If the success continues, it will perforce turn into greater, albeit grudging, respect for Mr. Bush.

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