As the battle to find his successor pins a black Democrat against a Euro-friendly conservative, Bush is saying farewell to Europe, a continent that won't shed a tear that the Texan's final term is over soon.
Bush's weeklong trip to the old continent begins Monday with an overnight stay in Slovenia, which currently holds the EU presidency. In the town of Brdo the president is meeting with EU leaders to discuss issues such as the nuclear conflict with Iran, much-needed support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the West's relations with Russia.
The president will lobby for a trans-Atlantic partnership that "promotes democracy, combats terror, prevents proliferation, and addresses global change and global trade effectively," national security adviser Stephen Hadley said ahead of the trip.
Bush still has a few allies in Europe: Of course, he is going to visit London, where Tony Blair stood by Bush's side in all his political failures, mainly the disastrous military campaign in Iraq. While Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, has distanced himself from Bush, that won't affect the farewell visit much.
And who would have thought that Paris would make for a pleasant final trip for Bush? Former President Jacques Chirac used to oppose Bush in all his political failures, mainly the disastrous military campaign in Iraq. Yet in current President Nicolas Sarkozy, Bush has one of the most pro-American leaders France has seen in decades. And in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, an old Bush chum, is once again prime minister. It's probably Bush's personal wish that he is also meeting with a leader who uses more references to God in his daily work than the U.S. president: Pope Benedict XVI.
Bush is also visiting Belfast, but before he ventures there, Air Force One will touch down at Berlin-Tegel Airport Tuesday for a two-day visit to Meseberg, the German government's castle-turned-guest house north of Berlin.
During Bush's first visit to Germany in early 2002, ties between Berlin and Washington were quite close. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had promised Bush "unconditional solidarity" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Germany joined the U.S.-led war on terrorism by sending troops to Afghanistan. Just over a year later, however, German-U.S. ties took a turn for the worse. Together with Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Schroeder was one of the most outspoken opponents of the war in Iraq. Bush and Schroeder hardly spoke to each other in 2003 and 2004, and the U.S. president did not visit Germany.
Things improved slightly during Bush's second term, mainly because the U.S. president -- busy managing the Iraq disaster -- was in urgent need of support from governments Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld once bashed as "Old Europe."
In a major visit to Mainz in western Germany, Bush and Schroeder tried to mend ties, but it was soon clear that only a different leader in Berlin would be able to open a new chapter in the countries' relations.
That new leader was elected in late 2005, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has since improved ties with Washington. Bush speaks fondly of Merkel and invited her to his country retreat in Crawford, Texas.
He also gave her a surprise back rub during the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, prompting Merkel to grimace in agony. A year later, at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Bush sipped an alcohol-free beer with Merkel on the terrace of the 18th century spa resort, after the German chancellor had convinced Bush to agree to harsher climate protection language. At least officially, however, even Merkel wasn't able to quite warm up to Bush: It's still a political tightrope walk to ally yourself with the hugely unpopular U.S. president, even if you may want to.
Yet Bush's current trip, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift (U.S.-led measures that helped Germany attain prosperity and placed it firmly within NATO), won't draw mass demonstrations as in Mainz and Heiligendamm. Germany, and Europe as a whole, has moved on.
European governments are desperately hoping for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to replace the Texan, and even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has extensive ties with European politicians, would be seen as a drastic improvement for EU-U.S. ties, even if that may mean Europeans would have to do more to secure Afghanistan and help solve other conflicts all over the world.
Europe shouldn't forget one thing, though: Despite the president's many political errors, Bush-bashing in Europe has also served to disguise the EU's own failures. Soon, Europe will be free of Bush, but also will be asked to do more, and better.
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