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The President Abroad

June 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to New York Times White House correspondent David Sanger, who is traveling with the president. He’s in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, tonight. David, welcome. Tell us… read between the lines for us on the Bush-Chirac meeting.

DAVID SANGER: Well, Gwen, this was a meeting where the two men went out of their way not to seem as frosty as they really were to each other. The first time that the president met President Chirac, he gave him a fairly formal handshake and did a little bit of chitchat. Today, it was a little bit warmer out on the veranda of that hotel where they went out of their way to call each other by first names and say that, in fact, they could get along and work together in the future.

But let’s not make any mistakes about it. When you talk to aides to the president, it’s clear that their relationship is… was certainly damaged, probably irreparably, by the actions took during the war. That doesn’t mean they won’t work together, but they will certainly never be confidants.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Vladimir Putin also opposed this president on the war, yet it seemed to be a warmer exchange between them. Read between the lines for that one on us.

DAVID SANGER: Well, I think the president had two things he needed to do there. First of all, I think he realizes that the relationship with Russia is so strategically vital to him that he can’t afford to have a continued disagreement. Secondly, they were signing the treaty of Moscow, this big arms reduction treaty. So he had a visible way of showing that they were making progress in the relationship.

There was still a little bit of tension particularly over Iran, where you saw President Putin say, “look, we are not out of the woods yet, because we believe that you are still trying to impede us commercially by stopping our billion-dollar project with the Iranian nuclear program.” The two sort of left agreeing to disagree, but it didn’t certainly seem as frosty as it was with President Chirac.

GWEN IFILL: And in talking about nuclear proliferation, there was also some agreement among the nations, I gather, about not only Iran but North Korea as well?

DAVID SANGER: There was more on North Korea. Both with the Europeans, who have been trying to press the North Koreans, but don’t have as many direct interests, do have some diplomatic ties. There was apparently a fairly good discussion between President Putin and President Bush on North Korea, but most importantly on the outskirts of the Evian Summit President Bush met Hu Jintao, the new president of China. It was the first time the two men had met since Hu Jintao became president. And the Chinese indicated to them that the North Koreans were beginning to move, and might be willing to have a meeting in the kind of setting that President Bush has suggested.

Now the interesting thing is, we don’t know if any of the partners in the …G-8 or the Chinese would support President Bush on the next step, if talks fail, which would be some kind of embargo or interdiction of North Korean goods.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about some of the agreements. There were some general agreements on President Bush’s priority that terrorism be considered a global concern.

DAVID SANGER: There was. This is not new for the G-8. In fact, at the last… the last time these leaders met in France in 1996 was the first time that terrorism was on their agenda. Unfortunately, it’s not an organization that is particularly well suited to fight terrorism in the classical military sense. They can, however, use the organization to try to push their ministers to come together more on the law enforcement side, and that clearly was what the president wanted to do here.

GWEN IFILL: And Jacques Chirac also wanted to put on the agenda concerns for poor nations, and, of course, there were some people invited who are not members of the group of eight industrialized rich nations to drive that point home. Was that on the president’s agenda too?

DAVID SANGER: It was on the president’s agenda in that he had just gotten from Congress a general authorization on the $15 billion project to help fight AIDS around the world. Congress hasn’t actually committed the money, but has agreed in principle. This the president used to try to force the Europeans to come along and do something similar.

President Chirac was doing something a little bit different here that was happening just below the radar. He is very concerned, of course, that the United States has become the sole superpower and talks frequently about a multi-polar world. One of the ways that he is trying to cement France’s position in that is to try to get a number of nations behind him. So he invited the African leaders who have been to these summits before, but he also invited the leader of China, he invited the leader of Saudi Arabia. So you had a much broader group.

The good news about this is that it makes the G-8 seem less of an exclusive club of rich nations. The bad news is that with that many people in the room there’s sort of less that they can agree on or get done, and of course, the developing nations are not full members.

GWEN IFILL: You are in Sharm El-Sheikh tonight because the president is beginning his turn of the Middle East to talk about his road map and get support for that. Is there sentiment within the Group of Eight industrialized nations about what the U.S. role should be in the Arab-Israeli peace process?

DAVID SANGER: The president said today that he wanted to seek Jacques Chirac’s advice and the advice of the other European leaders. But the fact of the matter is he’s well down the road on the road map, and he bears some resentment to the Europeans, particularly the French, for making the case last year that he should go into negotiations with Yasser Arafat. President Bush said, “I’m not going to go that route before. Bill Clinton did it, didn’t get him anywhere. Other presidents have done it. It’s all ended up for naught.”

So he waited for a new Palestinian prime minister to come together… to come into office, and he’s got that in Abu Mazen. So tomorrow here, he will be meeting first with a group of Arab leaders, and what’s significant about this is that while he’s going to try to put the Arab leaders at ease on the issues of Iraq and make the case that he will be strong with Prime Minister Sharon and try to force a hard deal there, the Arab leaders did not want Sharon on their territory. And that’s why there’s going to be several meetings.

There’s one here in Sharm El-Sheikh tomorrow, and then there’ll be a meeting between the Israelis and the Palestinians and President Bush in Jordan the next day, and then from there he’s going on to Qatar. So even in the organization of the meetings, it is clear that the Arab world has not yet signed on to the road map.

GWEN IFILL: David Sanger, as always, thank you.

DAVID SANGER: Thank you, Gwen. Good to see you.