President George W. Bush is incredibly popular right now... with foreign leaders. At home, of course, he's a lame duck, and a record 50% of Americans strongly disapprove of his presidency, according to a recent Gallup poll. Overseas, he has taken America to historic lows among poll respondents around the world. The war in Iraq, the rise of China and perceived American unilateralism have diminished U.S. global influence to its lowest level since the Cold War. But in all that bad news, smart foreigners see an opportunity and that explains why the President finds himself on the receiving end of so much attention from abroad this week.
First came Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking U.S. assistance against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and help advancing Turkey's pursuit of entry into the European Union. Some might have thought it an odd moment for Anakara's premier to pay a courtesy call on Washington, what with the recent recall of the Turkey's ambassador to Washington in protest over moves in the U.S. Congress to label the massacre of Armenians in 1915 a genocide. And then there are the mounting fears of a Turkish incursion into Iraq to stop cross-border raids into southeastern Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is listed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization. But what better moment to enlist U.S. help against the PKK than when Washington's fears of a damaging rift with Ankara are at their height?
And, certainly, Bush was as strong as he's been on the matter. On Monday he declared, "PKK is a terrorist organization. They're an enemy of Turkey, they're an enemy of Iraq, and they're an enemy of the United States. We have talked about how we can work together to protect ourselves from the PKK." Bush said he had shared intelligence on the PKK with Erdogan, and opened a direct channel between Turkey's number two military official and the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. The President also spoke of cutting off the money flow to the PKK from within Iraq. Not bad for a country that supposedly has unsteady relations with the U.S.
Then came new French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the crafty political operator known for exploiting his opponents' weaknesses in ways they don't expect. A social dinner Tuesday night at the White House was followed by a trip Wednesday to Mount Vernon set the collegial tone. And Bush laid it on thick at a joint press conference at Washington's home Wednesday, saying Sarkozy had "impressed a lot of people here on your journey," and telling the French leader that he has "a strong set of universal values in your heart."
As some keen observers had predicted, nothing tangible came out of the meetings. But Sarkozy still got what he came for: a burnishing of his image as the new pivot player in U.S.-European relations a role left vacant by the departure of Tony Blair as Prime Minister of Britain. And it's a role whose value on the continent Sarkozy recognizes. "What he wants is a bilateral relationship with Bush so that he can do what Blair so often did, which is serve as a swing between the U.S. and its European partners," says Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
At this rate, the German Prime Minister, Angela Merkel should be showing up with a long wish list when she lands in Crawford, Texas, on Friday, for a two-day summit with Bush. The President embarrassed his German counterpart in her own backyard last June when he refused to sign up for her plan to reduce global warming at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm. Signs of a U.S. effort to make nice could come with some new concession on the environment or on the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and broader issues of human rights in the war on terrorism another issue of long-standing disagreement between Bush and Merkel.
Certainly, this week's love-fest has been a two-way affair, and Bush has his own reasons for making nice with the auslanders. Nor is Bush lacking in tactical ability when he chooses to employ it: He is playing Merkel and Sarkozy off each other, for example, exploiting the tense relations between the two in the interest of pressuring for progress on Iranian nuclear negotiations and greater help from both in Afghanistan. But after this week's warm and fuzzy meetings, don't be surprised if more and more foreign leaders realize now's the time to get what they want from the U.S. and start beating a path to Bush's door.