Soothing mood music as Bush faces delicate balancing act with old Europe

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Indy Politics

"Vive la France," George Bush burbled in the obligatory interview with a French newspaper before he steps on to the soil of America's prime Iraq tormentor for this weekend's meeting of the G-8 major powers. But does he mean it? To quote William Boot, the reporter in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop who could never quite say no to his proprietor, the answer is, "Up to a point, Lord Copper."

This seven-day foray to Europe and the Middle East is the President's most delicate and most ambitious foreign policy trip since he took office. Its itinerary and agenda underline how ready Mr Bush is to challenge the status quo in both regions. But nowhere will he be more closely watched than at Evian.

Since Baghdad fell, the trappings of politeness have been restored. France, Germany and Russia, the leading critics of the war, backed Security Council resolution 1483 giving the US and Britain sweeping powers in the post-war adminstration of Iraq. With security in Iraq still so fraught, the US needs all the foreign help it can get to reduce the load on the 150,000-plus US troops in the country, and lend the occupation an added veneer of international backing.

Mr Bush had a 10-minute phone conversation with the French President last week, and Condolezza Rice, his national security adviser promises the G-8 will focus on the future, rather than rake over quarrels of the past. Mr Bush, she says, is not a man to bear grudges. But if that is true, the Bush political genes have mutated. All the evidence is that Mr Bush does not forget a slight. For the son as well as the father, loyalty and being a team player are essential for acceptance by the Bush Presidential dynasty. Behind the outward niceties the policy here basically remains: punish France, isolate Germany and make up with Russia.

The Manicheistic "with us or against us" approach of the 43rd President in the wake of 11 September 2001, in tackling the global terrorist threat, still holds. In interviews before his departure, the President noted pointedly that Americans (read "I") still could not understand how France had not been on the US side in its campaign for "liberty and security" in Iraq.

The St Petersburg visit may permit a mending of fences with Mr Putin (who in any case left the bluntest anti-war talk to his Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov). But there has not been a proper, bilateral conversation in almost a year between Mr Bush and Gerhard Schröder, leader of Europe's largest country, and that is not scheduled to change at Evian.

The President, it is said, is still furious what he considers the German Chancellor's breach of a promise not to make Iraq an issue in last autumn's election campaign, and his description of the war as an "American adventure".

The official French reaction to Mr Bush's decision to leave Evian early to travel to Egypt for his summit with Arab leaders is "perfectly understandable". He also has to prepare for the meeting with the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers, his first total immersion into the high-risk business of personal peace-making in the Middle East.

But every denial in Paris or Washington that the early departure is a snub reinforces the suspicion that is precisely what it is. White House officials would not say so publicly, but the G-8 gathering, at which Mr Bush will spend barely 24 hours, is for Washington the least important part of the trip.

His keynote speech on US-European relations is being delivered in Poland, eager ally in the Iraq war and the Administration's special favourite in the so-called "new" Europe.

From Evian, Mr Bush goes to the Middle East and the Gulf, where the prospect, however precarious, exists of a new start in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and where the ousting of Saddam Hussein offers a chance, however slender, to remould the Arab world.