Bush's offer to Chirac: 'Come on over and see some cows'

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The Independent Online

President George Bush left for Europe yesterday in an attempt to rally support for his plans for the handover of power in Iraq, and help transatlantic relations recover from arguably their biggest crisis in six decades.

President George Bush left for Europe yesterday in an attempt to rally support for his plans for the handover of power in Iraq, and help transatlantic relations recover from arguably their biggest crisis in six decades.

Outwardly all will be sweetness and light during his visit to Italy and France. In both countries the focus will be on the 60th anniversary of two high points of the Second World War, the US-led liberation of Rome in 1944, and the D-Day landings.

The occasion will merge almost seamlessly into next week's G8 summit, as most leaders attending the ceremonies on the Normandy beaches - including Tony Blair, President Chirac of France, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and President Vladimir Putin of Russia - fly on to Sea Island, Georgia for more discussions, again certain to be dominated by the Middle East.

In the run up, both sides have been professing their desire to let bygones be bygones. Mr Bush, in an interview with Paris-Match, even invited M. Chirac to "come and see some cows" - thus extending the rare honour of an invitation to his ranch at Crawford, Texas.

The half-jocular tone of the President's remarks is in contrast to a year ago, in the aftermath of the French/US clash at the UN, when Mr Bush angrily said M. Chirac would not be coming to Crawford "anytime soon."

But the warm words mask a sour reality. A year after the diplomatic debacle at the UN, France and Russia are once again picking holes in another draft Security Council resolution being circulated by Britain and the US - this one setting out the terms of the handover of power by the US-led force to the new interim Iraqi government.

The White House is counting on the photo-ops in Normandy and at Sea Island, to give the President a badly needed boost in his re-election campaign.

But the concrete results of a week of meetings may be few. Though most experts believe that, unlike in March 2003, a UN resolution on the new Iraq will be agreed, Mr Bush is unlikely to gain any new commitments of troops from the European allies, despite the intense current strain on US forces in Iraq.

In the latest sign of overstretch, the US Army has announced it will require all soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to remain on active duty until their units return. But both France and Germany have made it clear again that they will not send contingents of their own, even under the aegis of the UN. This in turn makes it unlikely that any assistance will be forthcoming from Nato, which holds its own summit in Turkey at the end of this month.

If anything the opposite is more likely. Faced with continuing violence in Iraq and strong public opposition at home, some participating countries are considering pulling out. Such a move, the President said, would send a "disastrous" signal.

Nor do many European governments share Mr Bush's argument, set out in his speech to the US Air Force Academy on Wednesday, that the war on terrorism is the Second World War of the 21st century, "the storm in which we fly."

Permeating everything is a widespread dislike of many of Mr Bush's policies - and of the style of the man himself. Quite apart from Iraq, the objections are to Washington's spurning of several international treaties, and its high-handed and unilateralist approach to a host of issues. For public opinion in much of Europe, this translates into huge negative ratings for the President, in France no less than 85 per cent.

"European governments for the most part would prefer to see John Kerry win the next election," argues Charles Kupchan of the Council of Foreign Relations. "They are trying to figure out how to keep this month on target, not have a train wreck. But at the same time, they don't want to do George Bush any favours, by giving him things that would increase his chances for re-election, such as new troops or a Nato decision to go to Iraq."

The transatlantic differences have also undermined plans to bring democracy to the Middle East, which was to have been the centrepiece of the Sea Island summit.

The so-called Greater Middle East Initiative has now been watered down, after protests from Arab countries and some European leaders, who believe such change cannot be imposed from outside- least of all when Arab nations have not been consulted.

Increasingly however, the problems reflect differing world views in Europe and the US. They will not be made to disappear by the symbolism and nostalgia of ceremonies evoking great deeds of 60 years ago.