By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006
VIENNA, June 21 -- President Bush and European Union leaders jointly prodded Iran and North Korea on Wednesday to back off from controversial weapons technology. The show of governmental unity came as anti-American demonstrators rallied nearby and Bush dismissed as "absurd" the suggestion that the United States is more of a threat than the two countries he once described as part of an "axis of evil."
Bush warned Iran to speed up consideration of a package of inducements being offered if the Tehran government suspends uranium enrichment, a key step toward possible development of nuclear weapons. And he demanded that North Korea refrain from test-firing a long-range missile that intelligence agencies say has been placed on a launch pad.
"It should make people nervous when non-transparent regimes who have announced they have nuclear warheads fire missiles," Bush said. "This is not the way peaceful nations conduct their affairs."
On both issues, Bush drew a strong endorsement from Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, following a summit here among U.S. and E.U. leaders. Schuessel, whose country holds the E.U.'s revolving presidency, said Europe would back the United States if North Korea violates international rules.
Schuessel also told Iran that it should quickly accept a recent U.S.-E.U. offer, which holds out the prospect of direct talks with the United States if Iran suspends uranium enrichment.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that his country would respond to the incentive offer by mid-August. Bush told reporters here that "it shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what's a reasonable deal."
In Vienna, the tone between the summit leaders was friendly, a sign of the warming relations between European governments and the Bush administration since the fallout over the Iraq war. Although protesters railed against Bush outside the walls of the Hofburg Palace, inside the president seemed relaxed as he offered a passionate defense of his foreign policy since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Several thousand Austrian police officers helped keep the peace in a city that one newspaper here described as a "fortress." Police estimated there were 15,000 demonstrators around the city.
Bush seemed most animated when a European journalist asked about a belief of many Europeans that the United States is the biggest threat to global stability.
"That's absurd," Bush replied curtly.
"We'll defend ourselves," he added, "but at the same time we're actively working with our partners to spread peace and democracy."
Bush picked up on the theme a few moments later, after an Austrian journalist raised the subject of recent opinion polls indicating that the image of America is falling around the world. The president said he had vowed after those terrorist attacks that he would "do everything to defend our people."
"For Europe, September 11th was a moment," Bush said. "For us, it was a change of thinking."
Schuessel rose to Bush's defense, recalling the American support for European reconstruction after World War II and saying Europeans "should not be naive" about the necessity of tough action against terrorists, in view of attacks on the continent. He said the suggestion that the United States was worse than Iran and North Korea was "grotesque."
Schuessel also said: "We can only have a victory in the fight against terror if we don't undermine our common values. It can never be a victory, a credible victory over terrorists if we give up our values: democracy, rule of law, individual rights."
That was a reference to allegations of wrongdoing by the United States in its open-ended detention of terrorism suspects. Many European governments want the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed right away.
Many European officials expected Schuessel to raise the Guantanamo issue with Bush, but Schuessel and U.S. officials said it was Bush who broached the subject, in an apparent effort to preempt their concerns.
As described by U.S. officials, Bush did not break new ground on the subject in the private meetings, repeating his general desire to close the facility. He outlined what the U.S. government considers the practical problems involved in returning large numbers of detainees to their home countries and noted that he was waiting for a Supreme Court decision on the administration's plan for military commissions to try detainees.
"There are some who need to be tried in U.S. courts," Bush said at the news conference. "They're cold-blooded killers. They will murder somebody if they are let out on the street."
Schuessel voiced understanding, though not necessarily agreement, with the president's statement. "We got clear, clear signals and a commitment from the American side -- no torture, no extraordinary or extra-territorial positions to deal with the terrorists," he said. U.S. officials said later that Bush only restated long-standing U.S. positions.
The meetings Wednesday were part of a continuing effort by Bush since his reelection in 2004 to rebuild relations with Europe. In the clearest sign of this, the administration has worked with France, Germany, Britain and the E.U. as they have taken the lead on the new diplomatic initiative to persuade Iran to restrict its nuclear program.
Russian and European diplomats had asked Iran to respond to the proposal by mid-July, ahead of a summit by the Group of Eight industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, Russia. U.S. officials were hoping for a response by the end of June.
It was unclear Wednesday why the Iranians were seeking an additional month. Some U.S. and European officials speculated privately that the Iranians might be trying to complete a second centrifuge array known as a cascade before suspending their nuclear program for talks. Others say they believe the Tehran government simply has not been able to reach an internal consensus on how to negotiate with the West. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is solely to generate electricity.
Bush is the first U.S. president to visit Austria since Jimmy Carter in 1979. Though he was on the ground here for less than 24 hours, he found time for a little sightseeing, touring the Austrian National Library and hearing a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir.
Later Wednesday, Bush flew to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. He has frequently visited the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, and his press secretary, Tony Snow, said that on this occasion he would offer an homage to the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule and its relevance to his effort to spread democracy today.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Washington contributed to this report.