Outrage over Guantanamo Bay could mar Bush trip to Europe

President hopes to spotlight improved relations during Vienna talks

June 20, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush travels to Austria today hoping to spotlight the improved relations with Europe that have marked his second term, but a strong undercurrent of international outrage about the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is threatening to mar the atmosphere.

The president's efforts to work with the Europeans on Iran, particularly his recent agreement to participate in direct negotiations with Tehran if it suspends uranium enrichment, exemplify a more collaborative foreign policy. Bush said yesterday that he's sticking to his demand that Iran stop its nuclear activities.

"America and our partners are united. We have presented a reasonable offer," Bush said at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

But trans-Atlantic divisions over detainee treatment have deepened in recent weeks, after the suicides of three prisoners at Guantanamo and new allegations of mistreatment there. A recent report detailing allegations that the United States has carried out so-called "renditions" of terror suspects to secret prisons overseas with the collusion of European governments has added to the tensions.

"It may not be the top priority for the Bush administration going into these talks ... but for the European leaders, Guantanamo is a big issue," said Nile Gardiner, a specialist in trans-Atlantic relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Bashing the Americans on Guantanamo is popular among the European public, and I think that most European governments are reflecting strongly anti-American public opinion with regard to the war on terror."

European criticism of Bush policy on detainees comes as the president is working to revise his image as a unilateralist by showing greater willingness to work with allies and to admit mistakes that have undercut his influence on the world stage.

"Bush has not only stated his desire to work with Europe but he's done things to back up that pledge," said Charles A. Kupchan, a Georgetown University international affairs specialist.

Bush also has moderated his message on Guantanamo. He recently told German television that he would like to "end Guantanamo" - a statement that came weeks after Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, called for such a move during a White House visit.

The president acknowledged last week that the detention facility constitutes a public relations problem for the United States.

"No question, Guantanamo sends a signal to some of our friends - provides an excuse, for example, to say the United States is not upholding the values that they're trying to encourage other countries to adhere to. And my answer to them is that we are a nation of laws and rule of law," Bush said.

But he said he would not close the facility until the Supreme Court rules on what to do with the detainees there. The court is expected to rule soon on whether prisoners at the U.S. base in southeastern Cuba, which holds roughly 460 suspected terrorists, can be tried in military tribunals.

White House officials suggested that they do not plan to negotiate about Guantanamo during meetings tomorrow in Vienna with representatives of the European Union's 25 nations.

Asked what Bush would tell the Europeans about allegations of renditions, improper conduct at Guantanamo, or a massacre by U.S. troops in Iraq, Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser said: "If rules and laws were broken, people will be held accountable. ... That's been explained to the Europeans in various forms at various times. They can raise it. There's not a whole lot new to be said on that issue."

Some European officials seem to disagree.

Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian foreign minister, said last week that EU leaders will press Bush to close Guantanamo quickly.

"For the United States, a country committed to freedom, the rule of law and due process, [Guantanamo] is an anomaly," Plassnik told the Associated Press, in comments echoing those of other European leaders.

Manfred Nowak, the United Nations special investigator for torture, told Agence France-Presse that the U.S.-EU summit "would be an excellent opportunity to demand, and to facilitate, an immediate closing" of the prison. Nowak participated in a U.N. investigation that produced a February report alleging treatment that "amounts to torture" at Guantanamo Bay.

The White House rejected the report as ill-informed, noting that the investigators who wrote it never visited the prison.

But analysts said such reports put pressure on European leaders not to be seen as marching in lock step with Bush.

"The vast majority of the European public is still quite uncomfortable with the Bush administration and its foreign policy, and that's one of the reasons why the European leaders, when they meet with Bush, have to push back," Kupchan said. Human rights "is an issue that still causes considerable anguish in Europe. They almost go out of their way to put the issue on the agenda, because they need to demonstrate to their publics that they're putting pressure on Bush."

Bush's willingness to hear criticism about Guantanamo could boost his efforts to demonstrate openness in his dealings with the Europeans, said Roy H. Ginsberg, an international politics professor at Skidmore College.

"He'll take it on the chin with regard to Guantanamo Bay, but he's a better listener now, and he's going to want to demonstrate to the European Union that he wants to work with his partners," Ginsberg said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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