By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Most weeks, the White House sees a procession of foreign leaders, and the past week alone brought the leaders of the Congo Republic, Chile and Honduras through the Oval Office. But only the prime minister of Denmark was granted a meeting and lunch at Camp David with President Bush, not to mention a 10-mile bicycle ride through the Catoctin Mountain woods.
"He's very fast," Anders Fogh Rasmussen observed afterward. "I consider myself a skilled mountain biker, but it was challenging."
It was the first time in more than two years that Bush welcomed a foreign chief to Camp David -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was the last -- and administration officials said the rare visit was a telling symbol of the unusually warm relationship that has developed between the leader of the free world and the head of a Scandinavian country of little more than 5 million people.
It was also a sign of the role personality and chemistry can play for Bush in his dealings with world leaders. Rasmussen, like Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has cultivated the U.S. president aggressively over the past five years, providing strong support for U.S.-led military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq while offering a straight-talking personal style that appeals to Bush. The result has been an influence with the administration that outstrips Denmark's size and place in the world, according to U.S. and Danish officials.
"They've bonded, and they have become good friends," said Stuart Bernstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Denmark who sat on in several Bush-Rasmussen visits. "I think he's the same kind of guy -- he's very forthright, he's very direct. They both see the world the same way."
The first time the two met, said one former senior Danish official, "your president could see he was sitting with a leader from Western Europe who was not using this kind of anti-U.S. thing to profile him at home."
Rasmussen, 53, is an economist and author of several books who has steadily risen in Danish politics since winning election to the parliament in 1978. At home, he leads a conservative government that has cut taxes and limited immigration, though he also favors same-sex marriage. He is perhaps best known internationally for his fierce defense of a newspaper's right to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, despite violent protests against Denmark in Muslim countries.
He has an outgoing manner that was immediately apparent in an interview Friday in which he kept his handlers away and talked one-on-one with an American reporter, something most senior U.S. politicians would rarely do. His friendship with the president is rooted in his embrace of Bush's foreign policy. Rasmussen has deployed troops to help maintain security in Afghanistan and Iraq -- there are 500 Danish troops in the vicinity of Basra -- and kept them there despite rising anxieties in Denmark.
Rasmussen said that he "shares the same ideology" as Bush, "that liberty is a universal value and that all people of the world deserve freedom and democracy."
His friendship with Bush and strong support for the Iraq mission have become a political issue in Denmark. The parliament recently extended the mandate for its troops to remain in Iraq for another year, but by a smaller majority than before. Denmark is more pro-American than other Western European states, but politicians of different ideologies describe a disillusionment over reports of abuse at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba and by U.S. forces in Iraq.
Jeppe Kofod, a parliamentarian and foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats, acknowledged that Danes are "proud that they have a prime minister who has this kind of access to Bush."
But he said this has not translated into policy influence with the administration. "He is one of the few European leaders who have access to Bush, and we ask, what's the payoff?" Kofod said.
Rasmussen shrugged off such comments -- "That's a natural opposition criticism," he said with a laugh. It was telling, though, that he departed from the generally friendly banter at a Friday news conference with Bush at Camp David to deliver a strong rebuke of alleged human rights abuses by U.S. forces.
"When unacceptable events happen in Abu Ghraib, and when allegations are made about horrific events in Haditha, it is not only a tragedy for the victims, it is damaging to our own efforts and an offense to our very own values," Rasmussen said.
Before Friday's meeting, Danish officials had voiced concern that the United States would begin withdrawing troops from Iraq without telling allies, and they expected Rasmussen to press Bush for more details on planning for reductions. Rasmussen said the two had a "detailed discussion of future strategy" in Iraq but declined to divulge details of his conversation with Bush. He said he was certain Bush "will consult with partners before final decisions are made."
"He knows that if he tells me something confidentially, he can be sure that I will keep it for myself," Rasmussen said. "The president values loyalty very much."
He added: "The president and I have developed a personal friendship, which I think is due to the fact that the president is an easygoing man, he is straightforward, he is very open, he is very informal."
Rasmussen voiced no doubt that his friendship with Bush has meant more than a bicycle ride at Camp David. "I have an easy access to President Bush -- he's the leader of the only superpower in the world. That is to the benefit of my country," he said.
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.