President Bush heads overseas today for twin summits amid increasing signs that he will win token -- but politically important -- support from NATO for the fledgling Iraqi government, administration officials said yesterday.
Bush has struggled for months to expand NATO's role in providing security in Iraq, and he was disappointed by the continuing objections of allies during an economic summit in Sea Island, Ga., early this month.
Now administration officials say they are optimistic that Bush will be able to join in an announcement of a new international commitment to Iraq at the end of a NATO summit in Istanbul on Monday and Tuesday. But some member nations -- most notably France -- are demanding clarifications before they sign on.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice signaled there would be an aggressive lobbying campaign, including face-to-face meetings between Bush and leaders of NATO countries. Rice said yesterday during a pre-trip briefing that the United States will ask the leaders "to look back at their own histories and to look at the darkest points in their own history, and to ask what it would have been like if people had abandoned them in those dark moments."
"The Iraqi people, as Prime Minister Allawi said in his opening line, are going through a difficult period now," she said. "They need those who are lucky enough to be on the side of -- who live in freedom -- to stay with them and not abandon them."
The summit -- part of a five-day trip for a European Union summit in Ireland and the NATO meeting in Turkey -- may be one of Bush's last chances to chalk up a victory overseas before he faces reelection. It would come just ahead of Wednesday's handover of control of Iraq from the U.S-led occupation to an interim sovereign government.
Several NATO nations signaled a favorable response to a letter this week from Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who asked for military training and other assistance -- but not troops, which key alliance members such as France and Germany have refused to provide.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters at a pre-summit briefing: "NATO should never slam the door in this prime minister's face."
An agreement would be an important victory for Bush, as well as for Allawi. Polls show that voters want Bush to show he can work with other countries, particularly in Europe, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has argued as part of his campaign that the United States must solicit greater international involvement.
Bush's advisers determined that it was crucial to establish a new tone for his international relations. They had looked forward to the three international summits, weekly speeches on Iraq and showcase speeches like those on Memorial Day and the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
Instead, Bush has suffered repeated setbacks, including escalating violence in Iraq, which crested yesterday with attacks in six cities as Bush was making final preparations for his trip.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that Bush will "have some success as relates to Iraq. Mainly the French and Germans can use Allawi as a rationale -- 'We're not giving to Bush but to the Iraqis.' "
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosheyar Zebari is expected to make personal appeals for help at the Istanbul summit.
A French diplomat said the specifics of the NATO commitment are still being debated. "There are debates which are about whether NATO should have a monopoly on training or whether it should have a direct responsibility for training or whether it should coordinate national efforts for training," the diplomat said.
The diplomat made it clear that France favors a light footprint, showing there is strong resistance to NATO taking as large a leadership role as it has in Afghanistan.
"Small is beautiful," the diplomat said. "Everything should be done that Iraqis are empowered and they have responsibilities. To come with a huge NATO flag is not a solution."