So did President Bush's five-day trip to Europe amount to anything? Were fences mended, rifts repaired, bridges unburned? The president's entourage wants us to think so. Consider their elated spin on the president's remark that he would "think about" one of his allies' propositions.
It came during his photo op with the Slovakian prime minister, when a reporter asked Bush whether he might join Britain, France, and Germany—the EU-3—in their negotiations to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear-weapons program. The widely quoted part of Bush's reply: "I was listening very carefully to the different ideas on negotiating strategies. … I'm going to go back and think about the suggestions I've heard and the ways forward."
Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, highlighted the passage while talking to reporters afterward, adding, "I think he wants to go back and think about it and talk to his national-security team." One White House reporter sidled up to a "senior administration official" to ask if this signaled a "shift." Yes, the SAO reportedly replied. "Last fall," he elaborated, "we were yelling at each other."
True, President Bush talked amiably this week with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. And OK, he said he'd go back and think about all the interesting things they had to say. This is a shift? This is news?
Trans-Atlantic relations have plummeted so deeply the past two years that maybe just listening is news, maybe it does reflect a shift. But the real shift would be if Bush not only listened, but actually took the European advice and joined the negotiations with Iran. First, it would mark the first time in a long while that the United States gave in to a European position rather than demanding fealty from the junior partners across the lake. Second, Bush has so far declined to take part in the EU-3's talks with Iran, not wishing to reward the mullahs for their bad behavior or to legitimize their regime by sitting down at the same table. (He's cited the same rationale in rejecting face-to-face talks with North Korea.) It is widely believed that a shrewd combination of sticks and carrots is required to get the Iranians (or, for that matter, the North Koreans) to abandon their nuclear ambitions—and that only the United States can provide both.
Remember the middle section of The Graduate, where Benjamin follows Elaine to Berkeley and keeps asking her to marry him? Finally she says, "I'll think about it." Benjamin reacts in shock: "Really? You'll really think about it?" That's how some Europeans and several American observers are reacting to Bush's comment that he'll think about joining the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Now it is worth noting, Elaine did end up marrying Benjamin, or at least running out on the frat boy that she'd agreed to marry. So who knows, maybe a shift on Iran is in the works, too.
But chances seem slim, when you consider what Bush said about Iran that his aides did not emphasize.
One of the things I wanted to make sure I heard clearly from our friends in Europe was whether or not they viewed the Iranian problem the same way I did. And they do. Chancellor Schroeder and Prime Minister Blair and President Chirac all said loud and clear that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon. And secondly, I was listening very carefully to the different ideas on negotiating strategies. We have a common objective, which is to convince the ayatollahs not to have a nuclear weapon. And I'm going to go back and think about the suggestions I've heard and the ways forward. But the key thing is we're united in the goal. The most effective way to achieve that goal is to have our partners—Great Britain and France and Germany—represent not only the EU, not only NATO, but the United States. And hopefully, we'll be able to reach a diplomatic solution to this effort. We're more likely to do so when we're all on the same page. And I know we're on the same page on this issue when it comes to a common goal. [Italics added.]
This is odd. President Bush had to go all the way across the Atlantic to discover that the three major European powers don't want Iran to have an A-bomb? Isn't that obvious, given that they've initiated negotiations to that end? So, of course, we're all "united" and "on the same page" when it comes to "a common goal" (how could we not be "united" on "a common goal"?). But that says nothing about an approach to a solution.
When it comes to the solution, it appears that what Bush is saying is exactly the opposite of its interpretation. He says that the three allies "represent" the United States in talks with Iran—in other words, that we're not going to show up. But if a U.S. delegate isn't actually at the table, why would the Iranians—or anyone else—believe we're a party to whatever's agreed? To the extent Iran is seeking nuclear weapons to deter an attack on its territory, it's the United States (or possibly Israel) that they fear, not Germany, France, or Britain. And so, if an accord is possible (and it may not be), and if the accord entails security guarantees for Iran, those guarantees must come from the United States. Asked about reports of military options against Iran, Bush replied, "This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table."
According to the White House transcript, this line was followed by "[Laughter]." At another point, a reporter asked him about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's joke, during a recent trip to Munich, that there was a "new and old Rumsfeld." Could the same be said of the president? Nope, he replied, he's the "same old Bush." George W. Bush went to Europe to listen, but he shows no sign of acting on anything that was said.