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President Bush Defends U.S. Policy on Iran, Guantanamo

June 21, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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PROTESTORS: Bush, Bush, Bush, go home!

MARGARET WARNER: Hundreds of anti-U.S. demonstrators took to the streets of Vienna today, protesting President Bush’s visit to the Austrian capital. The atmosphere seemed more congenial inside the Hofburg Palace, where President Bush met with Europe’s top leaders at the annual U.S.-European Union summit.

At a press conference afterwards, President Bush volunteered that he’d tried to address one of the contentious issues raised by the Europeans: the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I also shared with them my deep desire to end this program, but also I assured them that we will — not going to let people out on the street that will do you harm.

MARGARET WARNER: In a similar spirit, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel thanked President Bush for agreeing to join the E.U.’s talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

CHANCELLOR WOLFGANG SCHUSSEL, Austria: I told President George Bush how much we appreciate his constructive role in this particularly sensitive situation.

MARGARET WARNER: But reporters confronted President Bush with surveys showing he and the United States are increasingly unpopular in Europe. For example, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center in four European countries show that favorable opinion of the United States had dropped by as much as half since 2002.

And Europeans’ confidence in President Bush to do the right thing in world affairs stood at rock-bottom levels: from 7 percent in Spain to a high of 30 percent in Britain.

JOURNALIST: President Bush, you’ve got Iran’s nuclear program, you’ve got North Korea, yet most Europeans consider the United States the biggest threat to global stability. Do you have any regrets about that?

GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s absurd. We’ll defend ourselves, but at the same times we’re actively working with our partners to spread peace and democracy. So whoever says that is — it’s an absurd statement.

JOURNALIST: Mr. President, you said this is absurd, but you might be aware that, in Europe, the image of America is still falling, and dramatically in some areas.

Let me give you some numbers. In Austria, in this country, only 14 percent of the people believe that the United States, what they are doing is good for peace; 64 percent think that it is bad.

In the United Kingdom, your ally, there are more citizens who believe that the United States policy under your leadership is helping to destabilize the world than Iran. So my question to you is: Why do you think that you’ve failed so badly to convince Europeans to win their heads, and hearts, and minds? Thank you.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, yes, I thought it was absurd for people to think that we’re more dangerous than Iran.

I, you know, it’s — we’re a transparent democracy. People know exactly what’s on our mind. We debate things in the open. We’ve got a legislative process that’s active.

Look, people didn’t agree with my decision on Iraq, and I understand that. For Europe, September the 11th was a moment; for us, it was a change of thinking. And I vowed to the American people I would do everything I could to defend our people, and will.

I don’t govern by polls, you know. I just do what I think is right. And I understand some of the decisions I’ve made are controversial. But I made them in the best interest of our country and, I think, in the best interests of the world.

WOLFGANG SCHUSSEL: I think Austria is a really good example to show that America has something to do with freedom, democracy, prosperity, development.

Don’t forget, I was born in ’45. At that time, Vienna and half of Austria laid in ruins. It meant, without the participation of America, what fate would have Europe? Where would be Europe today? Not the peaceful, prosperous Europe like we love it and where we live.

So I think it’s grotesque to say that America is a threat to the peace in the world compared with North Korea, Iran, of other countries. The problem is — and I will be very frank on that, and I said it the same way like we did it here, and we say it now — we can only have victory in the fight against terror if we don’t undermine our common values.

It can never be a victory, a credible victory, over terrorists if we give up our values: democracy; rule of law; individual rights. This is important to know.

MARGARET WARNER: After briefly touring Vienna, the president flew to Budapest to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation.

More a threat than protection?

Joseph Joffe
Die Zeit
I remember that the U.S. has been seen as a threat to global stability for a long time, and the kind of opinion polls that you get out of right now by the Pew or from Vienna have a strong past ring.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, three perspectives on European attitudes from three Europeans. Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton is the E.U. ambassador to Washington. He's in Vienna for the summit.

Josef Joffe is the editor and publisher of the German newspaper Die Zeit. His new book is, "Uberpower: The Imperial Temptation of America."

And Julian Borger is Washington bureau chief of the British newspaper The Guardian.

Welcome, gentlemen, to all of you.

Joe Joffe, we just heard President Bush call it absurd to suggest that Europeans consider the United States a major threat to global stability. How do you read European public opinion about the United States and about President Bush?

JOSEF JOFFE, Editor, Die Zeit: Well, since I read public opinion very closely, I'm very leery of taking these snapshots and then reading too much into them. I remember that the U.S. has been seen as a threat to global stability for a long time, and the kind of opinion polls that you get out of right now by the Pew or from Vienna have a strong past ring.

I can reproduce the same kind of opinion figures that go back into the '90s and the '80s, and so forth, so I'm not quite as impressed by the drama of these figures that are currently being bandied about.

MARGARET WARNER: Julian Borger?

JULIAN BORGER, Washington Bureau Chief, The Guardian: Well, I mean, it's obviously a very serious situation for America, in terms of building global alliances right now. I agree with Joe that these kind of public opinion polls can turn on a dime, but I don't think this public opinion, European public opinion is really going to recover until there's a new administration.

MARGARET WARNER: What's driving it? What's driving the negative attitudes to the degree they are?

JULIAN BORGER: Iraq, and then the various human rights issues the U.S. is facing, most of all, of course, Guantanamo Bay, which is a nightmare for opinion on the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Ambassador Bruton in this. Ambassador Bruton, you were a politician before you were an ambassador. How do you read the situation? How do you read Europeans' attitudes towards the U.S. right now?

JOHN BRUTON, Former Prime Minister, Ireland: Well, first of all, to deal with that particular opinion poll which you quoted, what it showed was that the American presence in Iraq and what flowed from that was regarded by many Europeans as a considerable threat, and perhaps the biggest threat to peace.

It wasn't that they regarded the United States as a threat to peace, but that particular operation, which is obviously one that is controversial even in the United States itself.

I would also make the point that, when it comes to issues like, for example, ensuring that Iran does not become a military nuclear power, Europeans and Americans have identical viewpoints on that.

And even as far as Iraq is concerned, if you look objectively at what Europe's interests are, even though many Europeans might not agree with what was done in the past in going to war, Europeans know that it is in their interests, as it is in America's interests, that Iraq makes the transition to a peaceful democracy.

So, going forward into the future, we actually have convergent rather than divergent positions.

The lesser of several evils

Julian Borger
The Guardian
I agree there's a fascination with the U.S. because it is the superpower. It's the big boy on the block.

MARGARET WARNER: Joe Joffe, what about -- pick up on Julian Borger's point about the human rights issues. Do you think they have a particular resonance in Europe?

JOSEF JOFFE: Well, yes, of course, they have an enormous resonance, but I, again, want to caution you about the selectivity of the outrage. It is and has always been the United States which is the center of the resentment, and somehow nations who do real torture -- I mean, real, painful torture -- I don't want to name them now -- never get cited, so there's something peculiar about this repetitive, almost obsessive anger being directed against the United States.

Having said that, I think every right-thinking, rational American will say, "Hey, Mr. President, Guantanamo, that's not us. We have the Fifth Amendment in our Constitution. We have the 14th Amendment in our Constitution. This is a sacred principle that we are violating in Guantanamo, which is no due process, pressure, torture, et cetera."

And I'm very confident that even this government will disband that thing and that will be all for the good, both for America and for its image in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you, Julian Borger, explain the phenomenon that Joe Joffe just outlined, which is there are far worse abusers in the world and violators of human rights. But why is so much European anger, at least among the public, is directed at the U.S.?

JULIAN BORGER: Yes, I think there is -- I agree there's a fascination with the U.S. because it is the superpower. It's the big boy on the block. But also there is a sense of hypocrisy now, because once the WMD justification for going to Iraq fell away, it's been primarily fought on human rights, democracy, spreading democracy and so on. And so this is why Guantanamo is such a big problem for the president.

MARGARET WARNER: So, I'm sorry, when you mean hypocrisy, you mean the perception that Americans are being hypocritical?

JULIAN BORGER: Yes, there's a hypocrisy behind the present American justification of being in Iraq, that it is on a pro-democracy, spreading human rights in the Middle East, and so on, when they have this big problem in their own backyard in human rights terms at Guantanamo.

Carrying the burden of power

John Bruton
Ambassador, European Union
America is judged to a higher standard than anybody else. Because it is so powerful, and because it is the world's first democracy in modern times.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Bruton, we heard Chancellor Schussel refer to -- he sort of defended the United States in that press conference. And he said, you know, I remember -- he said he was born in 1945. And he said, "I remember when the United States helped feed Austria, helped rebuild Europe. Where would Europe be today without the United States?"

And my question is, do you think, though, that that regard for, that memory of, that appreciation of America's role in the post-war Europe is just generationally, however, fading away and that the U.S. can no longer count on that as a kind of reflexive European response?

JOHN BRUTON: Yes, I think it is, and it's not something that I agree with. I think, unfortunately, history is not taught as much or as intensively as it ought to be.

And I think many Europeans are forgetting how much they owe America, not only for reconstruction after the Second World War, but also for the support that America gave to the security of Europe during Soviet times and the contributions that the United States, therefore, made eventually to the collapse of communism and to the liberation and reunification of Europe, which is now taking place through the European Union.

It is also the case, I think, however, that Americans are judged. And America is judged to a higher standard than anybody else. Because it is so powerful, and because it is the world's first democracy in modern times, because it proclaims its own constitutional values so strongly, people then tend, I think, to judge Americans, America, more severely than even they might judge their own government.

That's not fair, but that's one of the burdens, I think, that being a major power tends to bring with it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Joe Joffe, pick up on the sort of point about this new era in which we find ourselves, in which the United States is maybe -- to use your word -- the uber-power and how much that may be just contributing to attitudes?

JOSEF JOFFE: Well, first of all, I agree with the ambassador. I'm the same generation. Of course, we all grew up, whatever countries we were in, where this generosity of spirit that the United States showed in these days.

And I might add, as a footnote, the way America currently presents itself to the world may be less of generosity than of fear and anger about being the prime target of international terrorism.

But if I look at the reasons why opinion has swung, I would come back, not with a generational or psychological explanation, but let's call this structural explanation. The Europeans no longer depend on the United States for strategic protection, which was the case for 40-odd years, which contained a lot of the internal squabbles, and clashes of interest, and this kind of -- the sense now, the Soviet Union is gone, we don't need big brother anymore.

And, therefore, it is much easier for the resentment that is directed against either the hypocrisy, as we call it, or this uber-power, this excessive power, to come out and to be expressed now.

And that is an abiding fact, this loss of strategic dependence on the United States that no government, good guys or bad guys, will change. The same kind of resentment, by the way, could already be felt against the Clinton administration.

MARGARET WARNER: So I'd like to end by asking...

JOHN BRUTON: Could I add to that?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, go ahead, Mr. Ambassador.

JOHN BRUTON: I would agree entirely with what Joe has said. What I would add, of course, that Europeans are closer to the Middle East physically speaking. And, therefore, if there are any mistakes made in the Middle East, Europe is more immediately and more directly affected by any mistake that might be made.

Therefore, we're more anxious; we're more cautious; we're more worried about the use of military power, because the pullback, the back-water from it is more likely to directly affect us, perhaps, than it is a country that has the Atlantic between it and the Middle East.

Finding common ties

Josef Joffe
Die Zeit
Look at how they're closing ranks on issues: on Iran, on North Korea, on the Israel-Palestine issue. They haven't been so close on policy level in the last five or six or 10 years.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Julian Borger, if you put yourself in the shoes of the United States or of Americans, is there a practical effect? Is there a reason why the United States should be concerned about the antipathy that European public opinion seems to have toward the U.S. right now?

JULIAN BORGER: Well, yes, to the extent that public opinion in the long run leads to the election of governments, and so it has an influence on what America's negotiating partners are going to be. But, in the short term, there's a big difference between what the public thinks and what the governments think.

And there is now an opportunity at the moment for better U.S.-European ties, just because there are a lot of issues that they agree on, as was mentioned before. They basically agree on Iraq now. They basically agree on Iran, even on the Middle East, which has been a long source of contention between Europe and the U.S.

There's more agreement now, mainly because things are so bad in the Israel-Palestine relationship. There's more room for agreement. So, paradoxically, there's an opportunity here for U.S.-European relations.

MARGARET WARNER: Joe Joffe, what's your view of that, about what impact, if any, that public opinion has on what governments can do and...

JOSEF JOFFE: Often, the relationship goes the other way around. In my country, in Germany, the anti-Americanism was really unleashed for the first time when it was kind of sanctioned or legitimized from the highest levels of government, when former Chancellor Schroeder ran against the United States and against Bush in 2002.

So, suddenly, the people noticed, "Oh, it's OK to harbor these bad thoughts." So sometimes the relationship goes exactly the other way around.

But I would like to address myself to the political point that we all seem to be making. The important thing is that governments for the last 12 to 24 months have been trying their best to close the gap.

I mean, we've gone to the brink, Europe and the United States, over the Iraq war, almost breaking the alliance. And what you see now is this conscious and determined attempt to close ranks, and that's why my colleague from the Guardian is absolutely right.

Look at how they're closing ranks on issues: on Iran, on North Korea, on the Israel-Palestine issue. They haven't been so close on policy level in the last five or six or 10 years. And that, I think, is the most important message to take home from this Vienna summit.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, then that will be, as we say here, the take-away message. Joe Joffe, Julian Borger and Ambassador Bruton, thank you, all three.