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Bush Faces a Defining Month on World Stage

In a series of summits, the president's image as a leader will be tested as Kerry waits to pounce.

May 24, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From Rome to Istanbul, President Bush faces a diplomatic gantlet in June that could burnish his image as an international leader or provide new ammunition for Sen. John F. Kerry's charge that he has isolated the U.S. in the world.

With anxiety over Iraq dominating the presidential race, an unusual concentration of international summits offers Bush probably his best opportunity before election day to highlight his credentials as a world leader on a stage unavailable to Kerry, his presumptive Democratic challenger.

But next month's events -- a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-day in France; a gathering of leaders of the world's top industrialized nations on Sea Island, Ga; U.S.-European Union talks in Ireland and a NATO summit in Turkey -- also present Bush with unusual risks, many analysts agree.

If the meetings do not produce much tangible help on Iraq or reveal continuing tension with traditional allies, they could reinforce Kerry's central foreign policy argument against Bush: that he has alienated too many other nations, leaving the U.S. bearing too much of the burden in Iraq.

"If ... the feeling is that things are harmonious, that will play to Bush's advantage," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's program on International Policy Attitudes. "But if information comes back about demonstrations -- about criticism and hostility -- and the image of the world being critical of us grows, that could significantly hurt him."

International summits often have been perfunctory and predictable events. In an election year, such meetings have provided presidents a relatively low-risk opportunity to emphasize a "stature gap" with challengers by spotlighting their role as a global leader.

But because this year's presidential race is revolving so much around foreign policy in general -- and Iraq in particular -- analysts in both parties believe the pressure on Bush to produce concrete achievements may be higher than usual.

"If these opportunities come and go without more help [on Iraq], it is going to be a disaster," said one Republican activist close to the Bush campaign. "He's selling himself as a leader. But right now, who's he leading?"

Richard Holbrooke, U.N. ambassador under President Clinton and a top foreign policy advisor to Kerry, said the meetings offer Bush "a tremendous opportunity" to rebuild ties abroad and polish his foreign policy credentials at home. But Holbrooke said that if Bush returns empty-handed on Iraq, especially from the NATO summit June 27-29, "I would say he's failed again."

Adding to the stakes for Bush is the timing. These gatherings will occur as the administration plans to transfer authority to an interim Iraqi government on June 30 and hopes to win a United Nations resolution blessing the handoff.

Administration officials and European diplomats are cautiously optimistic about reaching consensus on a resolution, which would give Bush an important victory during this period of intense scrutiny. Kerry's case against Bush, however, could be bolstered if the talks on the resolution bog down.

Beyond the substance of the meetings, the month's whirlwind of diplomatic activity may provide powerful symbols that shape the campaign debate.

Images from the D-day commemoration June 6 in Normandy, France, could suggest reconciliation between Bush and the European leaders who will join him. The occasion also could allow the president to link the struggle in Iraq with U.S. sacrifices in World War II.

"At a time when the images are filling the screens of U.S. soldiers in positions that are not exactly fantastic, reviving the memories of the sacrifices of 'the greatest generation' ... could be key," said one Western diplomat sympathetic to the Iraq war.

On the other hand, Bush's visits to Rome and Paris en route to Normandy and his trip to Istanbul, Turkey, expose him to the risk of large protests.

Italian opposition parties are organizing demonstrations against Bush. In Paris, left-leaning groups have called for similar protests, but observers there say it is unclear how much response they will generate -- especially against the backdrop of the celebration of the U.S. role in liberating France from Nazi Germany.

Still, the protests could be an eye-opener for many Americans because polling has shown that only a minority believe that public opinion in most other countries opposed the war in Iraq, Kull said.

In University of Maryland surveys, he added, those who believe world opinion mostly opposed the war are much cooler toward Bush than those who think most other nations supported it. As a result, Kull said, extensive protests could hurt Bush by deepening a sense that the U.S. is fighting in Iraq without much international support.

Signs are growing that next month's sessions will produce some accomplishments Bush can use to counter the broader charge that he cannot mobilize allies to work with the U.S.

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