Playing 'dumb like a fox' in the lion's den

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The Independent US

In the bar of the Gothia Towers hotel a cloud of cigar smoke rose from the corner table occupied by Gerhard Schröder, last week, as the German Chancellor took a nightcap after a formal dinner with George Bush.

Intriguingly, given the raft of policies differences between the two men, the smoke signals were good. Mr Schröder is one of a clutch of European leaders who may not agree with the new US President on key policies, but who has been pleasantly surprised by the American leader's first official visit to the continent.

According to Mr Schröder, in his encounter with European leaders Mr Bush had one key advantage: so low were the expectations of the President, so great the belief that he would commit another gaffe, that he could not fail to impress.

"Dumb?" hissed Barbara Bush, the waspish matriarch of the family when asked about suggestions that her son lacked intellectual wattage "He's dumb like a fox."

Now after a week in which the transatlantic alliance looked to be in danger of foundering, many of the 20 European leaders he met are having to revise their views. On display behind closed doors in Gothenburg and throughout were some of the political skills which got Mr Bush to the White House. A quirky orator and a frequent flirt, he was described by one senior official as having "country club charm, he goes straight to Christian names, he gave us the warm shoulder". Even the French President, Jacques Chirac, came away with the impression that this was a man whom it is impossible to dislike.

In fact Mr Bush's first port of call in Spain on Tuesday seemed to confirm the negative expectations, giving the impression that this presidency is a poor relation of its predecessor. His public performance was nervous and one of those famous Bushisms was not long in coming ­ a bad one too, a mispronunciation of the name of his host the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. For added measure he called him "president", in the company of the King of Spain.

For Europeans used to the glitzy Clinton era this was a stark contrast to presidential tours of the past. There were no curious crowds gathering to get a glimpse, indeed Mr Bush, managed to avoid all contact with ordinary people staying within the embrace of the metropolitan political elite ­ the European equivalent of the East Coast nomenclature he purports to despise.

But behind the scenes there had been some progress. Mr Bush arrived in Europe with two problems, the controversy over his ideas for a "son of star wars" missile shield, and his rejection of the Kyoto protocol on climate change. In Madrid, Mr Bush neutralised the first of those difficulties winning an implicit endorsement of America's approach to missile defence. That meant that the US president was able to go to Nato headquarters in Brussels the following day with some confidence.

True, France and Germany agreed a joint statement expressing their unease at plans to rip up the 1972 treaty on Anti-Ballistic Missiles. But with the backing of Mr Aznar, the support of the newly elected right-wing Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi and some less up-front backing from Tony Blair, Mr Bush was never in for a mauling. In return he promised not to act unilaterally ­ although he rather spoiled this pledge by saying he was "intent" on going ahead with the policy whatever the result.

On Thursday in Gothenburg, however, the US president went into the lion's den. The protesters were out in force, around 1,000 baring their buttocks in a "mass moon". Sweden, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, has made the environment one of its three key priorities and was in the chair for a summit at which the Kyoto protocol was top of the agenda. There were also differences over trade disputes and concerns over the Balkans.

This time there was no disguising the bust-up over Mr Bush's decision to abandon Kyoto, but the Swedish Prime Minister, Göran Persson and the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, met someone unafraid to argue back. As one of those present put it: "You do not make it to the White House without being able to look after yourself".

The two sides agreed to disagree, but the style of the debate impressed many of the Europeans. President Bush did not use speaking cards and, on the Kyoto issue was well-briefed. He also had the confidence to bring in his officials to make good debating points. There was also a recognition, meanwhile, that the White House may not have handled the issue well. "I think," said one official, "that they have been surprised by the extent of hostility ­ not just from governments but also from public opinion. I think that, if they were playing their hand over Kyoto again, they would not do it like this."

Whether better body language is enough to keep relations on track depends on the lessons drawn by the White House on the first five months of transatlantic friction. If the President has not shifted his policy, he has changed his tone, stressing a desire for consultation and his commitment to partnership with Europe. The question is whether he means it.