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Europeans welcome old what's-his-name

Bush's visit has met with more boredom than venom this time.

June 14, 2008|Geraldine Baum | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — President Bush this week swept across a Europe that has largely moved beyond him.

An American president who infuriated Europeans over issues such as military intervention in Iraq and climate change and once provoked massive street protests was greeted this time like a former boyfriend who is no longer even worth fighting with.

The Olympic flame's passage through the streets of Europe brought out more protesters than Bush did. By a lot.

"This is an American president at the end of his mandate who awakens more indifference than passion," the right-leaning French newspaper Le Figaro said on the eve of Bush's arrival here.

Bush himself captured the spirit at the start of his tour in Slovenia when he said, "Lots of people like America. It's possible that they don't necessarily like its president." The left-leaning French newspaper Liberation congratulated him for his lucidity.

In fact, in speeches and interviews, Bush expressed regret for the tone and Western-movie "dead-or-alive"-type rhetoric he used during his presidency. At the same time, he reaffirmed his fundamental belief that Western democracies have a calling to stand up to the "enemies" of freedom.

Though wildly unpopular across most of Western Europe, Bush was treated with more indifference than animus. Still, he tried to convince Europeans that he was right. During an address in Paris, in what was billed as the centerpiece speech of his trip, he noted that after World War II many people were skeptical that Europe could emerge free and democratic. Comparing skeptics then and now, he said:

"Something happened in Europe that defied the skeptics and the pattern of the centuries, and that was the spread of human freedom. . . . We should be confident that one day the same determination and desire that brought freedom to Paris and Berlin and Riga will bring freedom to Gaza, Damascus and Tehran," he said.

As though to counter his image as a unilateralist, Bush used this farewell journey both to seek more financial and military help from allies for Afghanistan and to stand with European leaders saying that diplomacy was the first choice in the confrontation with Iran. But he also said Iran would face further isolation if it didn't halt its nuclear program.

Many European leaders are pro-American and not unfriendly toward Bush, whose presidency ends in January. Indeed, his speech Friday mentioned by name Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's Gordon Brown, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and France's Nicolas Sarkozy, who ran for president a year ago as a pro-American, in contrast with his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who vehemently condemned the U.S. march to war in Iraq.

That U.S.-French rift on Friday was officially deemed history. The tone was all kiss and make up. Bush, in Paris for the first time in four years, characterized the schism over Iraq as a spat among friends.

"Recent history has made clear that no disagreement can diminish the deep ties between our nations," he said.

Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, greeted the Bushes at a dinner at the presidential Elysee Palace.

Still, from cardinals at the Vatican to intellectuals in Paris, the disdain for Bush was never far beneath the surface during his visit.

In Rome, a number of Vatican prelates were uncomfortable with the "warmth" of Bush's reception by Pope Benedict XVI on Friday morning, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Bush was the first head of state to be accompanied by a pontiff on a friendly stroll through the Vatican gardens.

"So much attention to a president who did not take any account of the appeal that the Holy Father launched to avoid a second war with Iraq," lamented a cardinal, according to the newspaper.

Francois Heisbourg, a political thinker and chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the Bush presidency had been "the worst period in transatlantic relations," and people in Paris couldn't be bothered with following his visit.

The European soccer championship was more interesting, Heisbourg said as he rushed to catch a plane to Switzerland to watch France play the Netherlands. The firing of a longtime male TV anchor to make way for a female friend of Sarkozy was clearly more tantalizing in France, considering the attention it has received.

Of Bush, Heisbourg concluded that there were "no expectations, no interest, finally, no problem."

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geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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Maria De Cristofaro of The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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