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Bush Takes Agenda on the Road

The president will face challenges from Europe to the Mideast during an eight-day tour focused on mending fences and fighting terrorism.

May 29, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After months at home directing wars against Iraq and terrorism, President Bush launches the most ambitious foreign trip of his presidency this week, tackling an expanding list of problems on stops that will take him from Russia to the Red Sea.

Over eight days, Bush will challenge balky allies in Europe to follow his lead and will put his clout on the line to push Israelis and Palestinians toward peace at a summit in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba. He will deal with policy problems arising from the Iraq campaign and issues that have long awaited his attention.

The trip's agenda sums up the administration's foreign policy goals: rebuilding Iraq and stabilizing the Middle East, confronting so-called rogue states and repairing relations with longtime allies.

Bush makes the trip strengthened by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein yet in need of support for the daunting tasks facing him in the region.

With two stops in the Middle East, Bush is casting aside his reluctance to get involved in the nitty-gritty of peacemaking, demonstrating his commitment to try to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The White House announced Wednesday that Bush will meet Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik on Tuesday and will meet the following day in Aqaba with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In both Europe and the Middle East, the president has charted a course and will ask the others to come along, one senior administration official said.

Although Bush and world leaders will discuss such varied topics as AIDS and famine relief, currency valuations and genetically modified foods, the core issues remain the security concerns of terrorism and "rogue" states that have absorbed most of Bush's energies since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"A lot of leaders in Europe and the Middle East are hoping that after the Iraq war, America can get the Middle East out of its system," said Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank in Washington. "Bush's message is: We have an agenda in this region, and we're not letting go."

On his first stop, Poland, Bush will praise a key allied government from the "New Europe," one of the few countries that contributed combat troops to the Iraq war. He will visit the sites of the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi concentration camps to recall Jewish suffering, on a stop related to his efforts on behalf of the Israeli-Palestinian accord.

The ensuing visit to St. Petersburg will give Bush an opportunity to strengthen ties to the Russian government that were strained by differences over the war with Iraq.

Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin are expected to exchange documents ratifying a treaty designed to reduce the two countries' strategic nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over the next decade. The treaty was ratified by the upper house of the Russian legislature Wednesday.

Bush's stop in Evian, France, allows him to meet with the leaders of the Group of 8 major industrialized nations for what are primarily economic discussions.

The stop has been described as part of the effort to mend fences with European allies, and Bush will have his first postwar meeting with French President Jacques Chirac. Relations between the two have been frosty since Chirac led the fight to stop the war on Iraq. A French official said the meeting, though not long, would be "one of substance, to discuss the entire range of important issues."

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, stressed to reporters Wednesday that the United States recognizes that it has a great deal in common with European allies with whom relationships "go back decades and centuries."

"The president understands honest policy disagreements," she said. But "no one understands if things take on an anti-American tinge."

A senior U.S. official said how much fence-mending is accomplished depends on Chirac.

"If they find themselves in common cause, then we're likely to move beyond our differences," the official said. "But if we find the French fighting for position, then we're not."

Bush wants European leaders to contribute to the effort to rebuild Iraq, even though the United States and Britain have a larger role, and the United Nations a smaller one, than the Europeans would like.

Another key issue is the looming crisis over Iran.

U.S. officials are demanding that the Iranian government give up Al Qaeda members believed to have carried out terrorist attacks. Some European governments have been talking tough to Iran in recent days, but the United States wants them to do more and to join in efforts to step up U.N. scrutiny over Iran's nuclear program.

At the same time, one U.S. official said there are limits to how far the Americans will push the Europeans on Iran, because the Bush administration continues to debate how confrontational it wants to be with the Islamic regime in Tehran.

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