President Bush has a lot of ground to cover on his visit to Europe, a continent that has largely been unenthusiastic, if not outright disdainful, toward U.S. policy since the invasion of Iraq.
There are hopeful signs that the president will be able to cover at least some of that ground in the relatively short time allowed.
Today, the president will meet with NATO's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and give a speech to the Belgium people. He'll dine this evening with French President Jacques Chirac.
Tuesday, Bush will meet separately with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yushchenko. He will also attend NATO and European Union meetings.
Wednesday, the president will be in Germany for a meeting with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Thursday, he will travel to Bratislava, Slovakia, where he will meet for more than two hours with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ups and downs
The itinerary may have an unfortunate downhill quality about it.
Europe appears eager to mend some of the fences that fell when the United States decided to depose Iraqi president Saddam Hussein without United Nations support. For his part, President Bush described his trip as an effort to "seize the moment and invigorate a relationship that is a vital relationship for our own security, as well as ... for long-term peace in the world." Even those European nations who condemned the invasion of Iraq have to be a bit defensive these days, given the success of the free elections held in Iraq and the progress being made in forming a democratic government there.
President Bush will get a welcome acknowledgment today from NATO, which is prepared to announce that all 26 members of the alliance have agreed to participate in some way in the mission to train Iraqi's military.
The level of that support varies widely and averages out to only about five training officers per country committed to service in Iraq, but the unanimity of the support is more significant than the numbers. Each country is recognizing the importance of rebuilding Iraq today and tomorrow, regardless of how they felt about yesterday's war.
The president's German visit will be most notable in that Schroeder was one of the president's harshest critics, and differences of opinion between the two approached personal animus. The handshaking will not be as dramatic or as historically significant as that between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993, but it will probably be almost as uncomfortable.
President Bush's most formidable challenge will probably come on the last day of the trip, when he will meet with Putin. Four years ago, the president said he looked into Putin's soul and liked what he saw.
Since then, Putin has given Bush reason to believe that his eyes deceived him. While Bush has been talking about man's innate desire for freedom and committing U.S. lives and resources to that principle in Iraq, Putin has almost single-handedly dismantled Russia's fledging democracy and had his hand in efforts to thwart democracy in Ukraine.
As startling as the differences in philosophy have turned out to be, the differences in practice are even more troubling. Moscow plans to sign an agreement with Tehran this week on spent nuclear fuel at a time when the United States has expressed serious concern's about Iran's effort to develop nuclear arms. Russian is also making new arms deals with Syria.
While Bush is attempting to build a sphere of influence in the Middle East with calls for democracy, Putin appears to be building his own sphere based on arms deals
There's another arms sale issue that the president is unlikely to even broach on this trip and that is the growing eagerness of Europe to sell arms to China. Virtually every European nation, including our strongest ally, Great Britain, favors lifting the arms sale embargo against China that was instituted after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
That has to be troublesome to President Bush. China will be able to finance massive arms purchases with American dollars it has been amassing thanks to its trade surpluses with the United States -- and it will be buying Nato technology, which for all intents and purposes is U.S. technology. More about that another day.