WASHINGTON — Seven Eastern European countries got full White House honors Thursday to mark the Senate's vote that earlier ratified their entry into NATO: an East Room ceremony, full-dress military guards, even a tinkling piano to set the mood.
It was the latest in a wave of attention and favors that President Bush is lavishing on countries that supported the war against Iraq.
"The peoples of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia have a fresh memory of tyranny. And they know the consequences of complacency in the face of danger," Bush told the countries' foreign ministers, lined up behind him on the flag-bedecked podium.
Critics may cringe at the denigration of traditional allies, but White House officials insist that these "new allies," despite their small size, are no less valuable than old partners, such as France and Germany.
"I think if people measure principles of right and wrong by [gross domestic product] size, they're using the wrong measurements," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer huffed at his briefing Thursday.
"Right and wrong is right and wrong, whether it's the smallest nation with the lowest GDP that stands on principle, or the largest nation with the highest GDP."
Fleischer described relations with France and Germany as cordial and productive. But a look at the White House schedule makes it clear that only members of the "coalition of the willing" -- the nations that supported the administration's decision to wage war on Iraq -- are getting face time with Bush.
Last weekend, Bush honored Australian Prime Minister John Howard with a coveted visit to his Texas ranch. On Wednesday, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar met with Bush in the Oval Office -- the leaders' third meeting in less than three months.
On Thursday, the president had breakfast with the prime minister of Denmark and met with the emir of Qatar in the Oval Office before the lavish East Room ceremony for the Eastern Europeans, which had to be moved from the Rose Garden because of bad weather.
And the "willing" are still coming: On May 19, the president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, will be granted the highest honor of all -- a full-fledged state visit, complete with the pomp of a White House arrival ceremony and a formal state dinner. It will be only the third state dinner since Bush became president; the others were for the president of Mexico in September 2001 and the president of Poland in July.
"The Philippines have suffered mightily at the hands of terrorists. And the Philippine government and President Arroyo have shown great courage in taking on the terrorists inside the Philippines," Fleischer said.
Foreign policy experts from both parties expressed concern at the administration's apparent willingness to trade in a set of traditional allies for a set of new ones.
No matter how worthy, the new ones -- dubbed "New Europe" by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- cannot replace the old, they say.
But exasperation in the administration and among some lawmakers has clearly boosted the standing of some countries that were far down on the president's priority list when he came into office.
"These countries already make significant contributions that strengthen the transatlantic relationship," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). "They've acted as de facto allies. In fact, they've acted as better allies than some of the members that are currently in NATO."
It's not just France and Germany that have been demoted. Russia -- a nuclear power and U.N. Security Council member that opposed the war -- has cast its lot with France and Germany. Mexico, an early focus of the president's attention, has also gotten short shrift in recent months. The White House even went so far as to cancel its Cinco de Mayo celebration this week.
The White House remains touchy about support for the war. Fleischer insisted that only "a small minority of nations" disagreed with the Bush administration on Iraq.
But while there are 191 members of the United Nations, the White House has listed only 49 countries in the coalition. And while there are about 40 nations in Europe (depending on how they are tallied), only 15 joined the coalition of the willing, eight of them from Eastern Europe.
While critics see the new Eastern European NATO members as little more than new U.S. client states, at least one of them, Slovenia, successfully resisted U.S. pressure to back the war on Iraq.
Some observers, including Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, say the Bush administration is creating a false choice between the new and the old.
"Frankly, in the long run, we are better off having a good relationship with Old Europe," Nye said. "Trading one versus the other would be a mistake."
It's true that the United States is the world's sole superpower, but the administration appears to be making the mistake of understanding power in military terms only, Nye said.
Instead, he said, international power is a three-dimensional chessboard with military power as one level, economic strength as the second and transnational, nongovernmental influence as the third.
The United States, he says, has sole superpower status only in the military realm. And when it comes to economics and nongovernmental affairs, the U.S. cannot sway the world without powerful friends on its side.
"One-dimensional thinking is bad strategy," Nye said.
"If we're playing on a multi-layered chessboard and we're playing only on one level, in the long run we're going to lose."
Associated Press contributed to this report.