Bush in Europe With Spate of Issues

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

ROSTOCK, Germany, July 12 -- President Bush arrived here Wednesday night trailed by crisis as he began a delicate diplomatic mission to hold together fragile international coalitions he has been building while tensions rise from Asia to the Middle East.

Parallel confrontations with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs had reached new intensity even before Air Force One left U.S. airspace. By the time he landed here, the president faced a new escalation between Israel and its Arab neighbors and a new spat with Russia 48 hours before he heads there for a summit.

A one-day stop here to receive a ceremonial barrel of herring and share a dinner of wild boar with his new best European friend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be followed by a weekend of meetings with fellow leaders of the Group of Eight in St. Petersburg. Nonproliferation, democracy, energy and other issues are on the agenda.

The tone for the meetings was set Wednesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin took a jab at Vice President Cheney for his recent criticism of Moscow's retreat from democracy and pressure tactics against neighbors. "These kinds of comments from your vice president amount to the same thing as an unsuccessful hunting shot," Putin said on NBC's "Today" show, referring to Cheney's hunting accident earlier this year.

The White House chose not to respond. At the same time, Bush's decision to come to Merkel's home turf in what used to be East Germany functioned as a statement about the benefits of once-communist countries embracing Western-style democracy and free markets.

At the top of the president's agenda this week are North Korea and Iran, both of which have defied international pressure in recent days -- Pyongyang by testing several missiles and Tehran by failing to embrace an incentives package to give up uranium enrichment.

In both cases, Bush wants to rally allies such as Germany and Japan while persuading Russia and China to go along with stronger action. Although China is not a member of the G-8, its president, Hu Jintao, will attend as an observer.

"It's a threat if the Iranians have a nuclear weapon," Bush told foreign journalists before leaving Washington. "It's a threat to world peace. It's a threat to all of us. It's a threat for North Korea to develop a nuclear weapon. It's a very destabilizing event in the Far East. So we're working very closely with each other to get it done."

At home, Bush faces Democratic criticism that he has been ineffective in handling Iran and North Korea. "Our security will continue to be weakened if you fail to rally our allies in St. Petersburg and produce real achievements on these critical issues," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and several other Senate Democrats wrote Bush in a letter Wednesday.

Crisis issues often overshadow the official agenda at G-8 summits, but this weekend's meetings will be especially sensitive for Bush because of the host. Russia has never before led a meeting of the G-8, which started out in 1975 as a club of the world's major industrialized democracies and admitted Russia in 1998 even though it did not qualify in either category.

At a summit in Alberta, Canada, in 2002, with feelings of international solidarity running high after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the seven other leaders agreed to let Putin host this year.

They took that step despite the increasingly authoritarian direction already evident in Moscow at the time. Since then, Putin has further tightened his hold over political life in Russia, ending the election of governors, consolidating his control over national television and eliminating the most potent sources of opposition.

"All seven of President Putin's guests in St. Petersburg have some regret over their decision in Alberta to give Russia the chairmanship of the G-8," said Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state. As for Putin, "he does welcome the fact that these two simultaneous crises with Iran and North Korea will make his guests less likely to want to concentrate on Russia's internal political direction."

Putin, who has set energy security, education and infectious diseases as the formal topics of the summit, bristles at discussion of Russian democracy, deeming it a continuation of Cold War hostility and unwelcome interference from the outside. After Cheney, during a May speech in Lithuania, strongly criticized Russia's behavior, Putin referred to the United States as "Comrade Wolf," who "eats without listening."

In his NBC interview, Putin denied that Russia was backsliding: "As Mark Twain said in respect to his own life, the rumors of the death of our democracy are highly exaggerated." He added: "We have changed radically. The Soviet Union is no more. But it seems that our partners have yet to make such far-reaching changes to their own thinking."

Bush has let Cheney do the talking for him, in apparent hopes of inoculating himself against criticism for going to St. Petersburg. Bush also sent a top diplomat to a meeting of opposition figures in Moscow this week and he will meet with activists in St. Petersburg on Friday. But national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said Bush will not make a speech about democracy while in Russia, choosing instead to "speak frankly, but privately with President Putin."

Bush appears to hope this tack allows him to get business done with Putin on Iran, North Korea and other areas. The two sides managed to renew an agreement on decommissioning Russian nuclear weapons just in time for the summit and are scheduled to announce Saturday an agreement opening the door to extensive civilian nuclear cooperation for the first time. And the two sides are close to a deal that would allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization.

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