Bush replies angrily to European criticism

Leaders fault policies on Iraq and detainees, support nuclear nonproliferation in Iran, N. Korea

June 22, 2006|By JIM GERSTENZANG AND ALISSA J. RUBIN | JIM GERSTENZANG AND ALISSA J. RUBIN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VIENNA, Austria -- President Bush responded angrily yesterday to differences with Europe over the Iraq war and the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, but won expressions of unity from the European Union on nuclear nonproliferation.

European leaders reaffirmed the need to halt Iran's uranium enrichment and to contain North Korea's nuclear arms program.

With public opinion surveys showing a growing animosity in Europe toward the United States amid fears that its anti-terrorism policies and the Iraq war are endangering world stability, Bush lashed out during a news conference, raising his voice and using the words absurd and absurdity to describe the criticism.

At the same time, he offered a restrained answer to Iran's announcement earlier in the day that it would wait until late August to respond to the most recent proposal from the United States and five other nations. The proposal offers economic, political and technological incentives if Iran suspends its nuclear program. The United States and its partners fear that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon; Iran insists that its pursuit of uranium enrichment is solely for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about President Bush's trip to Europe misidentified the director of the Vienna, Austria-based Sora Institute. He is Chistoph Hofinger.
The Sun regrets the error.

"It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal," Bush said.

He similarly made only a mild rebuke to North Korea, which U.S. officials say is preparing to test a ballistic missile thought to be capable of reaching Japan and possibly Alaska or Hawaii.

"This is not the way that peaceful nations conduct their affairs," Bush said.

Bush won broad agreement on the nuclear issues from Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and was the host for the Vienna meeting.

In comments on Iran, Schuessel used the Greek word kyros, which he said means "the right moment," to say: "This is their kyros, and I think now is the right moment for Iran to take this offer, to grab it and to negotiate."

But for the most part, the news conference with Schuessel brought to the fore the differences with which Bush is wrestling on a two-day visit to Europe.

The treatment of detainees at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and accusations that the United States has sent prisoners to countries that practice torture have become focal points for the broader opposition to U.S. policies in Iraq and its anti-terrorism campaign. The United States reportedly has transferred detainees through European airports and air space.

Responding to a reporter who said that "most consider the United States the biggest threat to global stability," Bush replied: "That's absurd. We'll defend ourselves, but at the same time, we're actively working with our partners to spread peace and democracy. So, whoever says that is - it's an absurd statement."

Asked whether the United States is promoting or hindering world peace, Bush said: "I thought it was absurd for people to think that we're more dangerous than Iran. We're a transparent democracy. People know exactly what's on our mind. We debate things in the open."

Bush spent much of his day in one of the great monuments of old Europe: the Hofburg Palace, former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Later he flew to Budapest, Hungary, where he was to explain the reasons for the Iraq war in the more politically friendly territory of post-communist Eastern Europe.

As Bush prepared to leave Vienna, a protest by several thousand people holding signs opposing the Iraq war and other Bush policies filled the Mariahilferstrasse, a main shopping street, marching peacefully toward the Hofburg.

Bush and Scheussel offered differing accounts of their private discussion about Guantanamo: Bush said Scheussel raised it; Scheussel gave credit to Bush.

The Austrian said: Bush "came up and said, `Look, this is my problem; this is where we are.' And I think we should be fair from the other side of the Atlantic. We should understand what Sept. 11 meant to the American people. It was a shock."

Bush's willingness to confront criticism could win him points among Europeans if he follows through, experts said. Already, the political elites are taking a more open view toward his administration, largely because the United States has been working with Europe on Iran rather than going it largely alone, as in Iraq.

"There's a very popular anti-Americanism from the left to the right which doesn't look at the facts," said Armin Turnher, editor in chief of Falter, a weekly political and cultural magazine. "But now most of the opinion leaders are saying, `Let's look at the reality,' and the reality is that American foreign policy has changed from what it was a couple of years ago. The Americans are not talking about war with Iran, they are working on diplomacy."

Still, the United States will only be able to begin to regain credibility if Bush follows through on a stated intention to close the detention facility at Guantanamo.

"If he follows it with actions, then it could begin to make a difference. The broader population doesn't change its mind with one visit, but it could be a step," said Christian Hofinger, director of the Vienna-based Sora Institute.

Reflecting the more restrained approach that European officials have taken toward the United States when contrasted with that of many of their constituents, Scheussel spoke of postwar Europe.

"I was born in '45," he said, speaking in English. "At that time, Vienna and half of Austria lay in ruins. And without the participation of America, what fate would have Europe? Where would be Europe today? Not the peaceful, prosperous Europe like we love it and where we live."

Jim Gerstenzang and Alissa J. Rubin write for the Los Angeles Times.

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