An aw-shucks visit

February 22, 2005

IN THE HEART of Europe yesterday, President Bush made a self-deprecating little joke during which he managed to work in Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Newton and Leibniz: American, French, English and German philosopher-scientists, all from the Age of Enlightenment. Not bad for a supposed cowboy. On a presidential trip that is sure to emphasize style over substance, it was a stylish way to begin.

Europe's a populous and wealthy continent, and at some point even Mr. Bush had to stop brushing it off. Three events have conspired to make this a good time for a clink-the-glasses tour (even if all they contain is pricey spring water). These events are, in reverse chronological order: (1) The Iraqi elections, which made Europeans start to ask themselves if something positive might not emerge from the war after all; (2) the Palestinian elections, which have led the United States and Europe to turn to the same page on Israel and the occupied territories for the first time in years; and (3) Mr. Bush's own re-election, which was a dose of reality for a Europe that had pined for change.

But wait: There was yet one other election, in Ukraine, where Europe and America spoke with a single voice and thereby played an important role in the eventual victory of the democratic Orange Revolution. There was cheering from Washington to Brussels to Warsaw on that one - but not in Moscow. Suddenly, attention shifted to the Big Bear at the Edge of the Woods. If Russia, which backed the wrong candidate in Ukraine in a big way, is going to get restless, then maybe it's time for the West to begin putting its house back in order.

Significantly, Mr. Bush singled out Russia yesterday for a lecture on democracy. He also singled out Saudi Arabia and Egypt (doubled out? tripled out?) on the same theme, and this was a welcome reiteration of his State of the Union message. The question remains: Will he match action to words? In the past, this has not been one of his strong points.

Certainly, no one should expect any breakthroughs in democracy-building or genuine trans-Atlantic cooperation during this one short visit. Iran and its nuclear program loom large; so does the prospect of the sale of European arms technology to China; so do disagreements over debt and Africa; so does the continuing conflict over multilateral institutions (the international court, the Kyoto treaty) that Europe supports and America does not.

In the view of many of Mr. Bush's supporters, America is a revolutionary power, while Europe is devoted to stability. Europeans might counter that revolutions of a democratic nature are fine, but that Mr. Bush's tactics are deficient. Somewhere in there are grounds for agreement - or at least acknowledgment - and all sides at the moment seem determined to find them.

Until recently, there was a belief in Washington that a divided Europe might be better than a united one. But better for what? The administration appears to have dropped that thought, and the president's appearance in Brussels made that clear. After all, it's a tough enough world as it is.

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