Bush flies in to build bridges with Europe's war dissenters

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The Independent US

If ever old friends are to forgive and forget, the moment is this week - as George Bush devotes the first foreign trip of his second term to repairing transatlantic relations more frayed in the past three years than at any time in half a century.

Mr Bush arrives tonight on a five-day visit drenched in symbolism. He will spend the first three nights in Brussels, the true "capital" of Europe, and will become the first American President to visit the core institutions of the European Union.

In practical terms, the discussions will produce agreement by the US and all 25 EU member states to help the new government in Iraq. More important is the intended message: that after the quarrels of Mr Bush's first term, Europe and the US are determined to turn over a new leaf.

Old disputes and suspicions remain, over policies towards Iran, the Middle East, China and global warming. In his inaugural address Mr Bush's soaring talk of spreading freedom and democracy induced much queasiness across the Atlantic, while many in Washington doubt Europe has the stomach for tough action to halt terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

But in tone, everything has changed - for now at least. Within hours of being confirmed by the Senate in her new job of Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was off to Europe, mending fences. Stephen Hadley, her successor as National Security Adviser, last week stressed the "common interests, common values and commonality of agenda" between the US and Europe. Mr Bush's visit, he said, would "turn the corner" in relations between America and its estranged allies.

At the height of the rift over Iraq, Dr Rice, Mr Bush's then National Security Adviser, reputedly said that the US would "forgive Russia, ignore Germany and punish France". On this trip that strategy will be turned on its head.

Far from being ignored, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been bestowed the sole one-to-one visit of the President's five-day trip, when Mr Bush spends most of Wednesday with the German leader. France, meanwhile, is no longer the designated whipping boy of "old Europe". Jacques Chirac will have a private dinner with Mr Bush on Monday.

Mr Bush is likely to keep his sternest talk for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whom he meets in Bratislava at the end of his programme, hours after delivering an address, directed to the "liberated" Communist peoples of Central Europe in the Slovak capital.

The US has been increasingly critical of Mr Putin's suppression of political opposition at home; it was infuriated by last week's visit to Moscow by Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, during which Mr Putin promised continued Russian support for Tehran's nuclear programme.

Iran will also cast its shadow over the EU part of the trip. For the moment, disagreement has been suspended as France, Germany and Britain try to negotiate a deal, offering technology and international acceptance if Iran drops its nuclear ambitions.

But Washington has stood aloof from the initiative, and last week Mr Bush stirred fresh unease in European capitals, insisting anew that he had not ruled out military action against Iran - a conflict in which even Britain, the trustiest US ally in Iraq, has made clear it would not take part.

For all the conciliatory talk, several other issues could strain transatlantic relations. They include the US reluctance to act on global warming, trade issues and Europe's desire to scrap the 1989 embargo on arms sales to China.

Even the Middle East, where prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian thaw have sharply improved after the death of Yasser Arafat, could produce friction in the months ahead. European leaders remain deeply sceptical that the US will exert the pressure on Israel without which, they believe, no peace settlement can ever be achieved.