WASHINGTON - When an American president trots the globe and engages other world leaders, it often elevates his stature at home. Voters see him outside the hurly-burly of domestic politics, as a distinguished diplomat representing his nation on the world stage.
Yesterday, President Bush began a three-day visit to Europe, the start of a whirlwind month of foreign travel and summitry. After weeks of dispiriting news from Iraq, his advisers hope Bush will appear through a more positive lens, one that could restore confidence in his leadership and his ability to work with allies to stabilize Iraq.
Analysts caution, though, that the burst of diplomacy is no guaranteed advantage for Bush. If violence continues to rage or worsen in Iraq, or if Bush fails to win backing from fellow world leaders for his plans there, analysts say, the meetings could be seen as an opportunity lost.
What's more, any perceived failure by Bush could play into the hands of Sen. John Kerry, who has argued that the president has pursued a go-it-alone approach that has tarnished America's image and made it impossible for him to work effectively with allies.
"Bush is trying this month to build positive momentum behind the idea that Iraq is not a solo U.S. operation, that there is a lot of multilateral involvement," said Chester A. Crocker, formerly an assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan and now a professor of international diplomacy at Georgetown University.
"This is an effort to change the subject and turn the page. But people are still going to look at the events on the ground in Iraq, not just pictures of Bush from a tarmac in Ankara."
The administration has billed the president's European trip as a way to commemorate the liberation of Italy and France from the Nazis 60 years ago. But the Iraq war looms large on his agenda.
Yesterday, the president briefly visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican before having dinner in Rome with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch ally on Iraq despite widespread opposition to the war in Italy.
After Bush speaks to reporters alongside Berlusconi today, he will jet to Paris to meet with President Jacques Chirac of France, who opposed Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Bush, Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, who also opposed the war, will stand together on the shores of Normandy tomorrow to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
From France, Bush will fly to Sea Island, Ga., where he will serve as host of the G8 meeting of leading industrial nations. There, he will confer with leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Russia and Japan, as well as from African and Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq's newly appointed president, Ghazi al-Yawer.
At the end of June, Bush will travel to Ireland before attending a NATO summit in Turkey. That stop will place him just across the border from Iraq on the eve of June 30, when the United States is to hand over political sovereignty to a new interim government.
Crowding out Kerry
Aides to the president say they think he will succeed in crowding Kerry out of the news for much of June and in forging an image of Bush as the nation's leader and of Kerry as merely a political candidate.
"With all the bad news out of Iraq, there has been a lot of disappointment in the president, with voters seeing Iraq as out of control and him as not in charge," said one veteran Republican strategist who advises the White House and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"But when he goes on the world stage, he'll appear to be the leader, and that will create some positive spin. And if Kerry is in Iowa talking about Head Start, he's just not going to get much coverage."
Still, some analysts say, Bush must show concrete results from his diplomatic foray if he hopes to derive lasting political gain. That could prove difficult.
The administration hopes his travels can help produce a compromise on a new United Nations Security Council resolution, drafted by the United States and Britain, to back the new Iraq government. Bush wants the resolution to endorse some kind of formal role for NATO, perhaps commanding forces in southern Iraq.
But nations such as France and Russia have complained, saying they do not want to give NATO such a formal role. Those nations also want the new sovereign government to have some kind of authority over U.S. troops who remain in Iraq.
The president intends to press NATO countries to accept an explicit role for the alliance and to send more troops. But already, leaders of France and Germany have said they oppose substantial NATO involvement, and administration officials have conceded that they foresee little, if any, NATO help.
Bush is expected to lobby for his initiative to foster reform and democracy throughout the Middle East. Yet so far, many of the leaders Bush will meet with have reacted coolly to it. And some Arab nations complained that Bush did not seek their ideas in crafting his initiative.