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Published: Wednesday, 3/2/2005

The differences remain

IT's hard to see exactly what President Bush accomplished on his four-day visit to Europe, unless you consider the mere act of going there in the wake of our grouchy relations with some countries over the Iraq war.

Mr. Bush met with Britain's Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, leaders of other European countries, and senior officials of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

His agenda included subjects on which the U.S. and European positions are opposed. One is the expected decision of the EU to end the 1989 embargo on arms sales to China. The United States is against the change because it doesn't want China to be able to buy high-tech arms. It is hard to see the logic of the U.S. position, given that China's second-largest arms supplier is Israel, many of whose weapons are based on U.S. technology.

A second area of difference is Iran's nuclear program. Britain, France, and Germany are spearheading the international effort to get Tehran to agree to controls to assure that it is, as the Iranians claim, dedicated solely to meeting the country's energy needs, as opposed to nuclear arms development.

The Europeans would like the United States to join the negotiating effort. Mr. Bush and other top administration officials seem inclined instead to back the European negotiations through threats to attack Iran. Mr. Bush characterized the idea that the United States was preparing to attack Iran as ridiculous, but followed that immediately with a statement that all options, including war, were on the table.

Mr. Bush larded all of his public statements with familiar reiterations of his and America's devotion to converting the rest of the world to the practice of freedom and liberty. The European democracies obviously took this in stride, seeing it as normal Bush rhetoric.

Russia's President Putin, pinned specifically on the subject by Mr. Bush, responded more sharply. Not only did he state that Russia would proceed in its own fashion in democratizing, in determining the nature of its government, he also took a poke at one of America's questionably democratic institutions, the Electoral College.

The Electoral College, in its lack of reflection of majority rule, is a point of vulnerability on the score of pure democracy. At the same time, just as with Russia's government, the Electoral College is an American institution: only Americans can change it, if they want to. Mr. Putin would say that only Russians can change their form of government, if they want to: It is basically none of Mr. Bush's or America's business.

On Mr. Bush's main point, the quest for European assistance in the U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq, particularly in building up credible Iraqi armed forces, he got basically nothing. NATO members promised a little help, but primarily only in training Iraqi forces outside of Iraq. France offered $600,000 in aid, a laughable sum except that it exceeds France's earlier offer: zero.

U.S. and Bush relations with the countries and leaders he met during the trip were undoubtedly improved by the effort he undertook to make it. Any notable gains in terms of U.S. policy won't come until later, if at all.



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