Bush seeks Europe as partner in peace

President outlines plan to promote democracy, contain Iran and Syria

February 22, 2005|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Asking Europe to join the United States in setting "history on a hopeful course," President Bush called yesterday for a new partnership to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East and throughout the world.

In the opening address of a five-day European tour billed as a fence-mending mission, Bush outlined a far-reaching agenda of governmental reform and military containment.

He challenged Iran, Syria and Israel to make concessions to foster peaceful relations with their neighbors, and urged Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to promote democratic rights for their citizens.

Bush also issued several demands, calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, Iran to refrain from development of nuclear weapons and Israel to freeze settlements in Palestinian territory.

To symbolize his outreach to traditional U.S. allies on the first foreign trip of his second term, Bush ate with French President Jacques Chirac last night and proclaimed that U.S.-French relations were back on course after contentious disputes over Iraq and other issues.

Earlier, Bush, who will confer today with leaders of the 25-nation European Union as well as leaders of the 26-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, called on "a strong Europe" to join the United States in promoting peace and democracy.

"America supports a strong Europe, because we need a strong partner in the hard work of advancing freedom in the world," Bush said, addressing 300 diplomats and government and business leaders at an elegant 19th-century concert hall but aiming his televised remarks at a far broader European and Middle Eastern audience.

"In a new century, the alliance of Europe and North America is the main pillar of our new security," said Bush. "Our strong friendship is essential to peace and prosperity across the globe. And no temporary debate, no passing disagreement of governments, no power on Earth will ever divide us.

"Together, we can once again set history on a hopeful course," Bush said.

The president's comments also laid groundwork for his planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday in Bratislava, Slovakia.

"Russia's future lies within the family of Europe and the trans-Atlantic community," Bush said. "Yet, for Russia to make progress as a European nation, the Russian government must renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

"We recognize that reform will not happen overnight," Bush said. "We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law."

The president was greeted with polite applause at the Concert Noble. A senior Bush administration official and veteran of the diplomatic circuit played down the audience's restraint, saying: "There's not a lot of audience participation, generally, across Europe."

However, Bush's words impressed many in the hall.

"It sounds rather convincing," said Stefan Aust, editor in chief of the weekly German news magazine Der Spiegel. "He is talking about realism, which is the basis of any kind of communication with Europe."

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq remains the sorest point of conflict between Bush and some European nations, particularly France and Germany. But as Bush prepares to ask NATO nations to join in the rebuilding of Iraq - either by training Iraqi security forces or with money for reforms and rebuilding - European leaders are welcoming his call for "a new era of trans-Atlantic unity."

"It makes little sense to continue arguing about who was right and who was wrong," said Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who met with Bush for an hour. "Our tactics may sometimes differ, but our strategic goals remain the same."

Some dignitaries privately expressed reservations about where Bush is heading with his insistence on preventing the development of nuclear weapons in Iran.

"There is a lot of concern about how Iran can be resolved in a way that doesn't replicate Iraq," a Brussels businessman said.

In his address, Bush reiterated a U.S. commitment to diplomatic negotiations with Iran that he stressed in Washington last week. "Iran ... is different from Iraq," he said. "We're in the early stages of diplomacy."

U.S. support for negotiations with Iran, led by Britain, France and Germany, is one of the most dearly sought goals among European leaders playing host to Bush during his tour through Belgium, Germany and Slovakia.

Bush was joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley as he ate with Chirac. Their meeting produced a formal statement in which Bush and Chirac urged Syria to obey a United Nations resolution and end its "outside interference" in Lebanon.

Bush also found some levity in a reporter's question about the possibility of Chirac visiting Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. "I'm looking for a good cowboy," Bush said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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