Bush in Search of an Iraq Posse

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Bush and his Czech counterpart Vaclav Havel speak at Prague Castle before the opening of the NATO summit

Surrounded by some of the tightest security ever seen in Prague, President Bush did his best this week to pump some adrenaline into the veins of European NATO leaders. They had gathered in the Czech capital to retrofit the mission and membership of the 53-year-old alliance formed to counter the Soviet threat. And Bush wanted them to focus, above all else, on the war on terrorism — and on the confrontation with Iraq. "For terrorists and terrorist states," said Bush, "every free nation is a potential target, including the free nations of Europe."

Despite differences in the alliance, NATO on Thursday issued a statement answering Bush. NATO leaders called on Saddam to comply immediately with the UN resolution and vowed to stand "united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the UN to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq, without conditions or restrictions." The term "effective action" was a carefully chosen alternative to specifying military action, to give NATO members who do not want to go to war a little wiggle room. Although the statement didn't give the president a green light to launch bombers at will, the wording does give him sufficient international cover to move forward and raises the pressure on Iraq.

Bush used his Wednesday address on the future of NATO to press the alliance to commit to a more proactive, even preemptive fight against terrorism. "Ours is a military alliance, and every member must make a military contribution to that alliance," he said. " The world needs the nations of this continent to be active in the defense of freedom; not inward-looking or isolated by indifference. Ignoring dangers or excusing aggression may temporarily avert conflict, but they don't bring true peace." And although he said member states were free to choose whether to join the U.S. in a "coalition of the willing" should military action against Iraq be necessary, he left no doubt he expects them to sign up. Failure to confront Saddam would be to appease aggression — although he didn't use that supercharged word from Europe's initial failure to confront Hitler, it was in the air, as he appealed to the continent's history of wrestling with totalitarian regimes. The seven new NATO members, he argued, should remind the current 19 nations of the "soul" of their alliance. What those new nations share is a recent history of overcoming oppression. "Those who have lived through a struggle of good against evil are never neutral between them," said Bush. It was an extraordinary statement suggesting that countries that have been less bullish about combating Iraq — such as France and particularly Germany — had forgotten the lessons of the Nazi war.

White House officials were quick to point out that Bush's strong statements were directed only at some of NATO's members like France and Germany, and not the entire group or its leader. "Lord Robertson has been particularly strong and visionary," said a senior White House aide Thursday about the NATO secretary general. "This is not like Kofi Annan."

When world leaders gather, they turn bustling cities into Hollywood sets. Hosts scrub 1200 year old buildings until their facades are unnaturally bright and cordon off well-swept streets to thwart protesters and terrorists. In Prague this week, there was very little stir in famous Wenceslas Square and in restaurants rows of starchy napkins stood tented at each empty place. Diners had either been deterred by police cordons or fled the city to avoid the potential traffic nightmare.

It looked like most of those who had stayed had been deputized into black jumpsuits and menacing body armor. Swarms of police clotted by the dozen at checkpoints. At the Hilton, where president Bush held several meetings with foreign leaders, the perimeter was rimmed with guards standing so close it looked like they were posing for a group photo. Over-head, American F-16s protected the air space and Wednesday, George Bush moved his speech from the offices of Radio Free Europe at the last minute because of an unspecified threat.

One of the key subplots being watched by diplomats and journalists here in Prague was the interaction between George Bush and his German counterpart Gerhard Schroeder. It appears that Bush is still penalizing the German leader for resuscitating his election campaign by attacking Bush's hard-line position on Iraq and going back on promises he made to the American president in private about supporting the U.S. effort in some fashion.

Though Bush had time to meet with the Czech prime minister, he could not find room in his schedule to slip in a meeting with the leader of the largest European nation. At a private dinner Wednesday night, the two men could not have been sat farther apart. Bush who is expert at working a room, barely wandered into Schroeder's corner. The next day Bush merely said their interaction had been "cordial," one of the signature diplomatic characterizations used to keep from causing overt offense, but little more.

White House aides insist that the German relationship is important, but admit that Bush's personal feelings about Schroeder have been irreparably damaged. Though the Bush team came into office saying they would not let personal relationships cloud their foreign policy, it is clear that in some cases, Bush's gut rules. The president has taken a personal liking to Russian President Vladimir Putin despite having said he would not fall into that trap, and he has made a similarly personal judgment, though with very different results, about Schroeder.

Next, Bush flies to St. Petersburg to reassure the Russians that an enlarged NATO is no threat to their country. Bush also hopes to use his personal relationship to bring Putin along a little more in support of pressuring Iraq. Though Russia has strong economic ties to Baghdad, Bush hopes the promise of greater economic links with the United States will help convince Putin to modify his highly qualified endorsement of the American position. That's not the only benefit. By casting its lot firmly with a united anti-Saddam coalition, Bush will argue, Russia takes a big step forward in gaining the kinds of strong ties to the West that it has long sought.

Before returning home, the president will make two quick stops in Vilnius Lithuania and then Bucharest, Romania. Visiting three cities in roughly 30 hours is hard travel for a president who likes his personal comforts. But quick stops have the benefit of leaving little time for the ceremonial duties of statecraft. His Prague agenda included sitting through 45 minutes of ballet by the National Dutch Theater, a cultural duty that didn't exactly thrill the president. "He'd rather dance with Gerhard Schroeder," quips one administration aide.