TOPICS > Politics

European Mission

May 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Berlin is President Bush’s first stop on a trip that will also take him to Russia to sign a nuclear arms reduction deal Friday, to France this weekend, and to a summit with other NATO leaders in Italy next week.

For insight into the trip, we’re joined by The New York Times White House correspondent David Sanger, and its Berlin bureau chief, Steven Erlanger. Welcome, gentlemen.

Steve Erlanger, thousands of anti-U.S. protesters have been massing in the streets of Berlin as the President arrived. To what degree do they reflect German or even European sentiment about this President?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, they reflect more sentiment than the political leaders want you to think. There is a lot of solidarity with the United States, but there is a lot of criticism of George Bush as President. They believe he’s warlike. They believe he’s become a missionary. They think he has a God-given notion to cleanse the world of evil, and they don’t trust it.

And they’re afraid George Bush is dragging NATO and them into a war with Iraq that nobody here really wants or sees the reason for having. At the same time, you know, they appreciate Washington’s support, the Germans in particular know how much the United States has helped them recover from World War II. The United States is a friend, but George Bush they still remain extremely skeptical about.

MARGARET WARNER: And, David, how is the President going to respond to this skepticism on this trip?

DAVID SANGER: Margaret, the President is going to give a speech at the Reichstag tomorrow, which I think will be the first time an American President has ever addressed the German people or the Europeans from the Reichstag since the Capitol moved here. I think he wants to use this to lay out a vision of a new American alliance with Europe, which is, of course, a continuation of the old one. But along the way, he’s got to placate a lot of people.

Obviously, he’s aware of what’s going on in the street and I think the argument that the Americans want to make is that the protesters represent a very, very small part of the German and overall European population. But as Steve has mentioned, there is a lot of sentiment that is aimed directly at President Bush. So he has to make the effort here to show that, in fact, he is in the tradition of the old American alliance, which is to say, to consult, not to move quickly without checking with all of his other leaders. And he’s going to make that effort, while thanking the Germans for all that they did during the first phase of the war on terror, which included, of course, sending some of their aircraft over to the United States to help with the patrols.

MARGARET WARNER: Steven, what do the European leaders hope to accomplish on this trip of the President’s?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, one thing they’d like to do is to get a better measure of the man. This is Bush’s first trip to Germany, something which has made German leaders feel kind of unwanted, and they want to get a clear idea from him what his plans are for the future — in particular, on Iraq, because Iraq is the neuralgic point at the moment. Everyone has been promising solidarity with Washington for the war against terrorism, and that was fine so long as it was aimed at the people who attacked the United States. But no one believes Iraq has attacked the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: So, David, is Iraq high on the list, on the agenda for the President and his advisors, or is this a preoccupation in Europe that he isn’t sharing right now?

DAVID SANGER: I think it is a preoccupation with the Europeans, and I think the President’s response is likely to be that he hasn’t addressed the Iraq question yet. He hasn’t decided what exactly it is that the United States is going to do and when it’s going to do it.

At the same time, he knows that he wants to go into whatever kind of conflict we have in Iraq, whenever we have it, with more than just Tony Blair of Britain at his side. And that’s a very dicey proposition dealing here with Chancellor Schroeder, who, of course, is facing an election in the fall. And so he wants to see if he can begin to coax along the Germans, and at least win over their acquiescence, if not their approval. And that will be a very tough job of which I think this visit will just be one component.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think are his prospects, Steve?

STEVEN ERLANGER: There’s a bigger problem, in a way, which is there is a feeling that this White House will do whatever it wants to do in America’s interests, no matter what its allies say. And people have a long bill of indictment about what they call American unilateralism. Now, America is too big a power and has too many interests all over the world to really be unilateral, but as people look at the American attitude toward the Kyoto environmental treaty, toward the international criminal court, toward the way prisoners are treated at Guantanamo, they do believe the United States thinks it can interpret international law and treaties to suit its own interests.

And people I do think, you know, want to be convinced by Mr. Bush that European views matter, that the rest of the world matters, that he does see the United States as best functioning in the network of relationships and alliances around the world. They do believe no superpower can live on its own by itself. I think Mr. Bush believes that, too. So there is a ground here for him to try to convince people that, you know, Europe not only matters to the United States, but it is valued by the United States as its closest and most reliable partners.

MARGARET WARNER: David, the President gave an interview to German TV today, I think, in which he said, “I believe in alliances, I know America can’t win the war on terror alone.” What is your understanding of what he really means by that? In other words, does he… you say he wants more than just support. Is he ready to have a partnership and to have U.S. policies affected by European views, or is it something less than that?

DAVID SANGER: Margaret, the President is caught between two camps in his administration on this exact issue. On the one hand, you have that group around the State Department and around Secretary of State Powell, which says, “look, the alliances are what you need to preserve and nurture and make sure that they grow.” And then you have a group that, in rough terms, is centered in the Defense Department to some degree at the Vice President’s office that says, that one of the problems we got into during the Gulf War was that we had too broad an alliance and it became a very difficult decision making process, and that in the end, when you go into a conflict that is primarily fought with American troops, primarily fought with American weapons and technology, the decisions have to be made in Washington and you can’t parcel that out.

So he’s trying to keep one foot in both camps, and it’s very difficult to do, because sooner or later you get to a point, a decision point, where you have to choose whether you are going to thank your allies very much and then go against their advice, or whether you are going to slow down and keep everybody together. And I don’t think the President has yet reached that moment.

MARGARET WARNER: So Steven, but the Europeans feel that the track record is such that they really aren’t ready ever… he isn’t ever ready to amend his views to conform to theirs?

STEVEN ERLANGER: Well, they’re afraid that the Americans after September 11 have missed an opportunity to emphasize the multilateral aspect of the war against terrorism. They feel that the United States could do that and chose not to. They worry, as I said, that Bush has a kind of almost religious messianic mission and won’t, you know, listen to criticism. They just think the world is little bit more complicated a place, but they also know the United States has global interests that they don’t necessarily have.

They want to be important to this fight — they’re certainly not on the side of Saddam Hussein — and they just want to feel that when they have something to say that Washington actually pays attention to what they’re saying and doesn’t try to patronize them or treat criticism as the whining of people who really don’t understand how serious the world really is.

DAVID SANGER: Margaret, if I could just hop in here — the President’s job in the next day then is to really lay out his case for Iraq and also for the broader war on terrorism, and to say, “look this is not just an attack that happened on the United States; it could happen to you and, in fact, of course, many of the terrorists use Germany as a base.” So he’s going to be pulling all of those strings. Whether or not he can make a convincing case and make a case that the United States should do something that may be, as Steve subjects, beyond existing international law, is I think will be one of the big challenges of this visit.

MARGARET WARNER: All right David and Steven, thank you both.