Few Surprises in Bush Speech for Europe



Most European commentators who watched President Bush's State of the Union speech say it contained few surprises, but it amplified some of the foreign policy themes Mr. Bush touched upon in his inaugural address last month. Europeans say they will be asking visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to clarify U.S. intentions toward Iran over the next few days.

Mr. Bush's State of the Union address was mainly focused on domestic U.S. issues like the need to reinvent the country's retirement system. But he also had strong words for Iran, which he labeled the world's primary state sponsor of terror.

Euro-American differences over how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions are likely to be topic number one on Ms. Rice's agenda as she visits several European capitals in the next week.

The Europeans welcome her first trip as Secretary of State as an effort to mend ties with allies that were strained over the Iraq War. European diplomats say they sense the second Bush administration is ready to engage more with Europe.

Knowing that Ms. Rice is much closer to the president than her predecessor, Colin Powell, they are hoping that she will make clear how Washington intends to deal with Iran.

Europe's Big Three - Britain, France and Germany - say they will not support any military strike to halt what the United States insists is Iran's program to develop nuclear weapons. The Europeans are using a diplomatic approach to try to persuade Iran to permanently stop enriching uranium through a series of trade and political incentives.

In his address, Mr. Bush talked of working with the Europeans. But he has in the past refused to rule out strikes against Iran. And Vice-President Dick Cheney has said Israel might act first to eliminate any nuclear threat from Iran.

Tim Hames, an expert on U.S. politics at British research institute Oxford Analytica, says he was struck by Mr. Bush's warnings to Iran and Syria to stop helping terrorists and by his promise to stand by the Iranian people if they demand more freedom from their rulers. But he says the president was much less combative on the subject of Iran than in the past.

"Rather than saying 'do this or else' to those regimes, it was more 'do this' with 'or else' hanging out there," said Tim Hames. "He talked very tough on Iran, but never deviated from the script that he was working with the European Union to try to persuade Teheran to do various things he wanted. He did make that direct appeal to the Iranian people, but that was really a piece of, I think, political theater, quite cheeky political theater. It did not, again, commit him to too much."

Public-opinion polls show that many Europeans, now that the elections in Iraq have been relatively successful, believe that the time has come for Washington to begin planning its withdrawal from the country. But Mr. Bush made it clear he would not end the American military presence there until the Iraqis are able to fight the insurgency on their own.

Matthias Matusek, an editor at the German news magazine Der Spiegel, says the fact that the elections are over does not mean that things are getting any better in Iraq.

"I think he might have been in danger of overselling a little bit the Iraq election," said Matthias Matusek. "Of course, it is a triumph. It is a victory that there have been elections. But nobody knows how that will turn out in the long term."

Despite Mr. Bush's focus on reshaping the social security retirement system during his speech, analyst Tim Hames, at Oxford Analytica in Britain, argues that the president's success in garnering support for bold domestic reforms depends on what happens in Iraq.

"In truth, Iraq is the centerpiece of Bush, both at home and abroad," said Tim Hames. "It might seem insane that there is a link between social security and Iraq, but there is, because if Iraq is perceived as a relative success, Bush's numbers will go up at home. His leverage on his own party and Democratic waverers becomes that much stronger. If it fails, his ability to persuade people to follow him ... becomes considerably diminished."

As Secretary Rice looks to traditional allies for commitments of support for Iraq to help it become self-sufficient in its security, some European diplomats suggest that in exchange Europe should demand that the Bush administration put more pressure on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank.

But they say that is not likely to happen at this stage. And though both sides of the Atlantic are determined to put their differences over the Iraq War behind them, these diplomats say it will still take time for trans-Atlantic trust to be restored.

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