Bush on Iraq: "What's Past Is Past"

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The question was blunt, even impudent. A foreign journalist asked President George W. Bush whether he regretted that "most Europeans consider the United States the biggest threat to global stability" — worse than Iran or North Korea. However debatable the premise, it was based on a Harris poll of 5,000 Europeans that had been featured on the front page of the Financial Times of London the day before Bush set off on his 15th trip to Europe.

"That's absurd," the President shot back, describing it as "an absurd statement." His top aides, sitting in the fourth row of the news conference at the ornate Hofburg Palace in Vienna, responded with visible shock, clearly hoping he would elaborate. He waited until two questions later, when he was asked again about failing "so badly to convince Europeans, to win their heads and hearts and minds." This time, the President was more expansive, and softer spoken. "Look, people didn't agree with my decision on Iraq, and I understand that," he said. "For Europe, September the 11th was a moment; for us, it was a change of thinking. I vowed to the American people I would do everything to defend our people, and will."

The President suddenly sounded as confident as he had in going after war-weary Democrats recently in the Rose Garden. His explanation reflected the unapologetic, even defiant mien he has struck during a 44-hour swing through Europe that began in Vienna on Tuesday night and will end when he flies out of Budapest on Thursday night.

Other leaders at the annual summit between the U.S. and European Union were primed to press him on the handling of detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, but Bush managed to preempt many of their complaints while not committing to any reversals. And he indicated a desire to overcome past fissures over Iraq by declaring, "What's past is past, and what's ahead is a hopeful democracy in the Middle East."

The trip, which provided plenty of opportunities for Bush to look defensive, instead has turned into one of the more successful foreign forays of his Presidency. The lightning schedule kept him from getting sniffly or cranky, as he did on several of his early overseas trips. Mammoth demonstrations never materialized. And that piling-on question about the U.S. image abroad provoked perhaps the most ardent defense of Bush by a European leader since the attack on Iraq in March 2003.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel — in remarks that the White House immediately flagged to reporters and supporters in an "In Case You Missed It" e-mail alert — showed with convincing specificity that the White House still has a staunch friend in continental Europe. He said the Marshall Plan's lifeline to Austria after World War II "is really a good example to show that America has something to do with freedom, democracy, prosperity, development." He noted he was born in 1945, when Vienna and half of Austria lay in ruins. "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," he said. "Let me say, Mr. President, I'm really happy that you are here, that you were here in Vienna. Come back, if possible."

Earlier, the President had said, "I call him, Wolfgang; he calls me, George W." Certainly, now he also is proud to call him "friend." Bush, greeted on his way into Budapest by crowds of shirtless men lining the roadways, was to conclude his trip with a hilltop ode to democracy marking the 50th anniversary of Hungary's unsuccessful 1956 uprising against Communist rule. His planned remarks, bolstering the philosophical case for his "freedom agenda," made a subtle but unmistakable allusion to Iraq by suggesting that once a democracy is established, that sets an example and others will follow.

The President was accompanied by First Lady Laura Bush on many of his major stops, which included a question-and-answer roundtable with foreign students at the Austrian National Library, which has 8,000 books printed before 1500. When one of the students repeated the chestnut that tough times never last but tough people do, the President provoke laughter by replying, "Do you mind if I use that sometime?" Asked about a typical day at the White House, the First Lady began by saying, "We get up about 5:30 a.m. The President gets up and goes in and gets the coffee and brings it back to me in bed. Very nice of him." The President gestured toward the journalists sweating nearby. "Record that, please," he joked. Then, in a surprise highlight to the trip, the President and First Lady, joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, tapped and swayed along as two dozen high-pitched singers in the Vienna Boys' Choir, which dates to 1498, performed a medley that included Johann Strauss's "On the Beautiful Blue Danube." At least for the moment, George W. Bush looked happy to be in Europe.