Bush's Unpopularity in Europe Hangs Over Summit

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

VIENNA, June 20 -- President Bush arrived here Tuesday for his 15th visit to Europe since taking office, at a time when the populace remains generally wary of him despite concerted efforts by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to patch up their differences.

In meetings here Wednesday, Bush and European Union officials are to confer on issues including trade, energy security and their mutual efforts to persuade Iran to halt activities that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons.

Officials have dampened expectations of any major announcements, because Iran has yet to respond to a package of inducements and penalties -- including the offer of talks with the United States for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution -- aimed at ending its enrichment of uranium.

Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, said Americans and Europeans were strongly committed to having Iran completely shut down its enrichment program. "The framework is clear," he said. "What is missing is a positive Iranian response. And that's, of course, what we are looking for."

On Thursday, Bush is scheduled to visit Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where he will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1956 uprising against communist rule.

Since his reelection in 2004, Bush and his advisers have tried to rebuild relations with Europe -- deferring to Britain, France and Germany, for example, in handling the diplomatic initiative toward Iran. The White House has been aided by the defeat of Gerhard Schroeder in his bid to remain German chancellor and the weakening influence of French President Jacques Chirac; both had made opposition to the U.S. war effort in Iraq a centerpiece of their administrations.

But if relations at the political level have improved, public opinion has lagged far behind. Bush remains unpopular with the public in many European countries over the war in Iraq and alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other facilities, according to opinion polls and experts on transatlantic relations. A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found that the United States' image has slipped over the past year in France, Germany and Spain and is down considerably since 2000.

Diplomats and experts on Europe say public opinion is a significant drag on Bush's ability to expect much from political leaders here -- for instance, for his renewed effort to secure international assistance for the new Iraqi government. While countries such as Poland and Britain have contributed substantially to security in Iraq, the European Union as a bloc has done relatively little, officials say, pledging the equivalent of about $250 million in assistance in 2006.

"The scars of Iraq are still very real and run real deep," said Ronald D. Asmus, executive director of the German Marshall Fund's Brussels office. While political leaders may agree that success in Iraq is important, he said, the European public believes "that Americans screwed it up and need to clean up the mess."

Gary J. Schmitt, who specializes in defense and foreign policy issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Bush administration has done a much better job handling Europe in the second term, but questioned whether Europe's leaders will sign on to tough sanctions if Iran rebuffs the recent overtures.

"To their credit," he said, speaking of Bush administration officials, "they have learned that it's better to have the Europeans on board than not. The real question is when it comes to the hard issues, like Iran, whether it will pay off."

Adding to the public relations problem is continuing anger over allegations of abuse by U.S. forces at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq, and disclosures about secret CIA prisons in Europe. Bush has been confronted with questions about these matters almost every time he has met a European leader, and a spokeswoman for Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whose country holds the revolving presidency of the E.U., said he would raise the issue again on Wednesday.

At a briefing for reporters last week, Hadley noted Bush's repeated statement of interest in closing the Guantanamo facility and said people would "be held accountable" by the Pentagon if allegations of wrongdoing in Iraq were confirmed. "That's been explained to the Europeans in various forms at various times," he said. "They can raise it -- there's not a lot new to be said on that issue."

Denis MacShane, a British member of Parliament from the ruling Labor Party and a former minister of state for Europe, said that Americans "just have to live" with a reflexive anti-Americanism and that Europeans are coming to share American concern over the threat from radical Islam. But the Bush administration, he added, "has not really thought about managing European public opinion -- they have not had a kind of program of public diplomacy that has been convincing."

John Bruton, a former Irish prime minister who now leads the E.U. mission in Washington, said that U.S. and European politicians both need to do a better job. "Our task really is one of trying to reestablish a sense among Europeans that Americans are their cousins," he said.

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