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Bush, Blair Downplay Differences on Defense


WENDOVER, England — Offering smiles and careful words, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday played down their differences over a controversial missile defense plan, while the president drew fire at home from a leading Democrat who accused him of letting U.S. influence decline on the world stage.

Bush and Blair minimized the British leader's reluctance to sign on to what has become the president's signature national security goal: scrapping the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and building a defense against long-range missiles.

"When we fall out and diverge," Blair said, ". . . the only people rejoicing are the bad guys."

But the U.S.-British relationship, historically Washington's closest with any ally, has taken on an oddly anxious tone during the opening months of the Bush administration, stemming from the president's opposition to the 1997 Kyoto accord reached in Japan for fighting global warming and his determination to build a national missile defense system.

Bush is making his second European trip as president and beginning today faces what's expected to be a tense summit in Italy of the leading industrialized nations.

Against this backdrop, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said in Washington that by failing to tackle in unison with allies a range of international issues, the Bush administration is letting the U.S. global role erode.

"I think we are isolating ourselves, and in so isolating ourselves, I think we're minimizing ourselves. I don't think we are taken as seriously today as we were a few years ago," the South Dakota Democrat told USA Today.

He noted that Blair had offered to be a mediator between the United States and Europe.

"Since when did we need a liaison with Europe?" Daschle said. "What a commentary about the relationship we now have."

In London, Bush took umbrage at Daschle's comments.

"One of the things that America has prided itself on is a bipartisan foreign policy. And I would hope that that tradition continues," Bush said to reporters. "We're not retreating within our borders."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was less restrained. "This is a real violation of a long-standing tradition of bipartisanship on foreign policy," he said. "It is unseemly, unwise and inaccurate."

Daschle later reminded reporters that Republicans in the past were "extraordinarily critical" of President Clinton on foreign policy but added: "Had I given some thought to the fact that the president was departing, I probably would have chosen a different time to make those comments."

The majority leader's criticism echoed commentary from abroad, where Bush's differences with allies over global warming, missile defense and other issues have fed skepticism about his administration--expressed politely by government officials and diplomatic analysts and with outright hostility by protesters in the streets.

After spending much of the day as a tourist, Bush flew by helicopter to Chequers, the British prime minister's 1,000-acre estate near Wendover, about 35 miles northwest of central London.

The president and prime minister had a social evening planned: Bush, his wife, Laura, and their 19-year-old daughter Barbara were spending the night at the 436-year-old red-brick Tudor mansion with Blair, his wife, Cherie, and three of their four children. The Blairs' 14-month-old baby was left out.

'Higher Comfort Level' Than in February

A senior Bush administration official said the two leaders first met in private for one hour and were joined by aides for an additional 20 minutes.

"Conceptually they are moving forward. They are moving forward in harmony," he said. "There is a higher comfort level than there was in February in Camp David," the leaders' first meeting of Bush's presidency.

At a news conference at Halton, a grand house near Wendover built in the late 19th century by Alfred de Rothschild and handed over to the Royal Air Force during World War I, Bush said, "I appreciate Tony's friendship."

Defending his competence on the world stage, he added: "I think people will find out that I'm plenty capable of conducting foreign policy for the United States in a way that reflects positively on my nation."

Blair hewed closely to his previous public statements on missile defense, saying it is true that new solutions are needed to counter weapons of mass destruction and that defensive as well as offensive systems must be considered.

But the British prime minister indicated that, until he sees a specific U.S. plan, he is not willing to sign on to developing a defense system that critics charge could lead to a new arms race. And whatever steps are taken must involve "close consultation and dialogue with Russia," Blair said.

Bush praised Blair for being "more than willing" to listen to the ideas that undergird the U.S. proposal to abandon the ABM Treaty in order to pursue development of a missile defense system.

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