PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. President Bush spent a long week practicing diplomacy in Europe, where they think they raised it to an art form, and where relations have been more strained than usual because of differences over Iraq. Mr. Bush ended the trip by meeting with Russia's President Putin, who seems to have backed away from democratic reforms by cracking down on dissent and on independent businesses.
We'll get to the Europeans in a moment, but in many ways the most fascinating part of the week was the meeting with Putin. President Bush raised his concerns about the health of democracy in Russia, but he said he still trusted his friend, and understood Putin's position that democratic reforms had to be adjusted to Russian concerns about stability and the economy.
PUTIN SPEAKS IN RUSSIAN. TRANSLATOR: Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy. This is our final choice, and we have no way back. Any kind of turning towards totalitarianism for Russia would be impossible due to the condition of the Russian society. But I believe that a lot of people will agree with me, the implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I think the most important statement that you heard and I heard was the president's statement, when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia. And they're not turning back. To me that is the most important statement of my private meeting, and it's the most important statement of this public press conference. And I can tell you what it's like dealing with the man over the last four years. When he tells you something, he means it.
PAUL GIGOT: Here to discuss all this are Dan Henninger, a columnist and deputy editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial board, Melanie Kirkpatrick, associate editor of the editorial page, and Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial board who has reported extensively from overseas and Europe. Bret, that was a very intriguing press event with the two presidents, I thought. And a lot of people were watching President Bush at this summit to see if he lived up to the promise he had made during his inaugural, to press for democratic reforms even when it's difficult with friendly government. Did he meet the test with Putin?
BRET STEPHENS: Yeah, I mean look. I think the porridge was not too hot, it wasn't too cold. It was just about right. And it was right and necessary for President Bush to raise the subject of democracy and civil liberties in Russia. It's a problem. It's something that needs to be addressed. It's something that we see with basically the take-over by the Russian state of the media, and the way in which they have treated some of their political opponents and very troubling assassinations in Russia of political opposition figures, and of media figures.
On the other hand, Putin is not Mugabe, and Russia meets what Natan Sharansky has called the public square test. If you walk into Red Square in Russia, you probably can say pretty much what you want without being arrested. So I think what Bush was doing was -- it was right to raise the subject with his Russian counterpart. It was right to say this is on our minds. But on the other hand it was absolutely right not to allow it to dominate the agenda or spoil or relations with them.
PAUL GIGOT: Melanie, too soft on Putin, I think some might suggest? Or do you agree with Bret?
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I pretty much agree with Bret on Putin. And I think it's really interesting that Putin took this very public opportunity to speak unequivocally about the importance of democracy for Russia's future. And he's beset by difficulties at home. Just this week military groups held a protest demanding that the military get more money, and complaining about the encroachment of NATO into what they consider the rightful sphere of Russia. So what does Putin do? He does not take the opportunity to play to this group of Russians. Instead, he reiterates the importance of democracy.
PAUL GIGOT: I suspect, Dan, that Putin himself will not be pleased that the topic of democracy dominated this whole press conference. He would have much rather talked about a cooperation on terrorism, other issues, don't you think?
DAN HENNINGER: Yeah, excellent point. He gets upset when he gets criticized for his democratic or anti-democratic practices. And he says, you have to understand us. We have democracy in our own way. It reminds me in some way of the way the Chinese get upset as well at criticism. But I think these two countries have to understand, they are both bidding to become major players on the world stage. They want to be members of the World Trade Organization, they want to participate in the economic affairs of the world. If you're going to do that, you have to show in some way that you're going to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. You have to stand up to a special test that smaller countries don't.
PAUL GIGOT: What about the other issues that we have with Russia, particularly security issues? We care very much about the proliferation of nuclear materials and technology to Iran, for example. This is a difficult line, because we want to make progress with the Russians on that and stop that. And if you spend your chits on democracy, maybe you can't spend as many on Iran.
DAN HENNINGER: Well, one of the issues in democracy, or the sort of thing that President Bush is talking about, has to do with trust. The president said explicitly that he believes when Vladimir Putin says something, you can believe him. Well, we just had the issue of what's going on between Russia and Iran and the sale of nuclear fuel to the Iranians. And the Russians are saying that that reprocessed fuel will all go back to Russia and you don't have to worry about it. Can we really believe him?
PAUL GIGOT: I don't know if we can. Well, let's broaden the discussion here to the president's entire trip to Europe. And to do that, we want to bring in Brian Carney, who is the editorial page editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE, from his Brussels base. Brian, the photographs that we saw this week suggested that there was a lot of mutual good feeling that both sides were trying to promote about this visit. Was it real, or was this something of a mirage? How deep are the differences still?
PAUL GIGOT: Brian, you were there. What's the reaction in Europe to the president's speech? Are they writing nicer things about him? Is it at least a better reception?
BRIAN CARNEY: I think it is. I think the trip did improve people's opinions of Bush. Bush had become a demonized figure, a hate figure in Europe. And part of the reason perhaps was that people didn't see very much of him, especially in the run up to the war, where the closest he got was the Azores, just before the invasion. And being here, and saying nice things about Europe and the importance of the transatlantic relationship did make a difference.
But perhaps more important, I think, is that things seem to be turning a corner in places like Iraq. Editorialists in Europe, even, are forced to concede that the elections were a success and that there's some hope for the future in Iraq. And I think the course of events, more than any particular thing Bush said or did on this trip, is starting to turn things around in Europe.
PAUL GIGOT: Do you think it made any difference that the president decided to go directly to Jack Chirac with his first dinner over there, and then made a point of meeting with Gerhard Schroeder, those being the two most vociferous opponents of the Iraq policy?
BRIAN CARNEY: Jack Chirac reciprocated Bush's gesture by contributing one police training officer to the effort to train police in Iraq. So I don't know if there are any immediate dividends in terms of Bush's policy in the Middle East that he gains from seeing these people. But by meeting face to face with Chirac, and with Schroeder, whose calls he reportedly wouldn't have taken if they had been made just at the time of the war, shows that he's willing to talk to these people and he values the relationship, and he's willing to do things to try to patch things up.
PAUL GIGOT: Bret, you used to work in Brussels. How do you see this new rapprochement, if that's what it is? Is it real?
BRET STEPHENS: Well, I think things are changing, not just atmospheric. I think history is changing. One very interesting point, DER SPIEGEL is the premier news weekly in Germany. It leans left. Just before the Iraq war they had a cover story that said "Blood for Oil." This was their thesis. Well, they had an editorial just this week on Bush's visit. And the headline of the editorial was, "Could Bush Be Right?" And they made the comparison. They said, you know, in 1987 Reagan came to Berlin, spoke in front of the Brandenburg Gate, and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." And the immediate reaction by all of the German elite, the commentators, was, "Oh, he's a dreamer. This is not the way it works." These guys, Germany couldn't imagine that in just two years' time Germany would be reunited. And the magazine made just that point. It's the Europeans who tend to lack an imagination. And I think with the election in Iraq, with events moving in places like Lebanon and Egypt, all of a sudden Europeans are waking up and saying, "Oh, you know, this fool might actually be right."
PAUL GIGOT: Melanie?
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I actually think the most powerful image of the whole trip was when he went to Bratislava. Imagine, Bratislava. It sounds like a name out of a Jean le Carré novel. It is the image of the down-trodden Soviet Union. And here is a country, a tiny country, that has brought itself democracy in a very quick time.
PAUL GIGOT: This is Slovakia.
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Slovakia.
BRIAN CARNEY: It's worth noting in that connection that after the visit, the Prime Minister of Slovakia made a very forceful statement in support of Bush's policy in Iraq and in North Korea, and in support of his policy of transformational democratization.
We like to talk about a transatlantic rift, but the fact is there are a number of countries, and central European countries foremost among them, but also Britain and Italy and Portugal -- although they're undergoing a change of government -- that supported the Iraq war from the beginning. Spain supported it before its change of government. Denmark supported it. And the transatlantic rift is really a difference of policy between Bush and Schroeder and Chirac, and a couple of other European leaders. Europe is far from united in opposition to Bush or to his policies, or to the war.
PAUL GIGOT: Brian, I noticed that the president tried to -- President Bush tried to make a bow in the direction of the Europeans on Iran, where he said I'm going to think about more carefully offering more carrots to the Iranians if they give up their nuclear program. But is that disagreement over policy on Iran still fundamental between the United States and, say, France and Germany?
BRIAN CARNEY: I think when it comes to Iran, the problem is that the Europeans want to write off the use of force before the game has really even begun. And in fact, this is analogous to the problem in Iraq, where it's just possible that if people like Chirac had not been running interference and declaring ahead of the game that there was no way that they would ever support an invasion, and giving Saddam Hussein hope that he could string along and divide the international community, that Saddam may have come clean and opened himself up fully to inspectors, and removed a big part of the causas-belli there. I think with Iran, we have very much the same problem.
What I would like to hope is that to some extent the Europeans and the Americans can come to an agreement whereby the Americans play bad cop to the Europeans' good cop, and everybody understands that you need a threat, a stick, in addition to a carrot. I'm not sure that they've come to that understanding. But it's just possible that Bush has made his position clearer to the Europeans on this trip.
PAUL GIGOT: One other fundamental difference of opinion is on lifting the EU Arms Embargo -- European Union Arms Embargo -- to China. Any progress made on that front? The president brought it up, but he doesn't seem to get a positive response.
DAN HENNINGER: Not much. This raises a key point. Germany and France and the United States are not singing from the same hymnal. The United States regards national security, and now freedom, as primary interest. Germany and France regard those as secondary interest. Their main interest is commercial relationships. They have weak economies. They need to fund their welfare state. And they're willing to sell high-tech weaponry to China in return for commercial contracts. That's where their focus is. It is not on terror. It is not on international security. They're just not allied with us in the same way that they used to be.
PAUL GIGOT: All right Dan. That's the last word. Thanks. Next subject.