The Oval: New Views in Old Europe

All you need to do is look at someone like Britain's Tony Blair. Blair used to flash his famously broad smile whenever he stood next to the president, radiating his own sense of power at being so close to the leader of the free world. Now the prime minister looks stern and humorless, as if his alliance with Bush was less a cause for happiness than deep concern. Facing a likely election within months, Blair managed to muster just one flash of his teeth during a morning photo op with the president. After that, he endured the rest of the time in front of the cameras wearing a deep frown. He looked even less happy later in the day at a group photo of European Union leaders, standing alone and unloved to one side of the stage.

The political theater of group photos is far more revealing than most news conferences. President Bush and France's Jacques Chirac played the classic cat-and-mouse game of trying to be the last leader (and therefore the most important) to show up to the photo shoot. (The master of this game was President Francois Mitterrand, who would show up late to most summit meetings, annoying especially the first President Bush.) Bush won that game on Tuesday, but Chirac was not to be outdone. Standing alongside Bush, he took control of the scene. As the cameras began their rapid fire, Chirac reached across Bush to point toward Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who was standing on the other side of the U.S. president. Bush could only grin as his new friends chatted across him in an effort to upstage him.

Bush could afford to look amused at all the jockeying for attention. His tour has succeeded where previous fence-mending exercises failed last year. Almost 12 months ago to the day, Bush welcomed German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder to the Oval Office to deliver a simple message. "We have differences in the past. But there's nothing wrong with friends having differences. And we have both committed to put the differences behind us and move forward," Bush told reporters. "It's essential that America have good relations with Europe. Not only do we share values, we share economic interests."

You could have closed your eyes this week and thought it was 2004 all over again. Speaking at the European Council's headquarters on Tuesday, Bush said he wanted to see a strong Europe working closely with the United States. "It's in our interests because the values that caused the European Union to exist in the first place--the values of human rights and human dignity and freedom--are the same values we share," he explained. Everyone (even Chirac and Schroder) spoke of wanting to put the past behind them. "The major issue that irritated a lot of Europeans was Iraq. I understand that," Bush told reporters at NATO headquarters. "I can figure it out. And the key now is to put that behind us."

If the language hasn't changed, what has? Why is Bush successful now when he failed before?

Administration officials say the answer is that the world has changed with the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's true up to a point. The new Iraqi government is a far more attractive--and legitimate--partner for European allies than the old handpicked one. But it's also true that their new commitments to Iraq are relatively minor in terms of cash and manpower. These are token gestures that won't change the dynamic in Iraq on their own, even if they are important signals of a more positive attitude.

What's really changed is the calculation of the Europeans themselves. Faced with the prospect of another four years of Bush, they have clung to the White House talking points for dear life. European leaders have repeated the phrase "shared values" at every turn, underscoring how much they need to close the gap. Even Chirac insisted that relations between France and the United States were "excellent for over 200 years now." Why are they so utterly wonderful? "Because they are based upon common values," he explained. "Of course, we can have our differences," he conceded. "But this in no way affects or in no way undermines the bedrock of our relations, namely our common values." Did someone say common values? At NATO, they talked about little else. According to Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, "I have heard strong support for the common values that bind us, in the past, in the present and in the future."

What hasn't changed is the president himself. His position on every major area of difference with European leaders--on negotiations with Iran, on arms sales to China, on climate change--have budged not one inch. Even on the war in Iraq, the president remained as feisty and passionate as ever in defending his decision to invade. When one European reporter asked Bush about whether his "charm offensive" signaled a change in policy, Bush was entirely unapologetic. "I made some hard decisions, as did other leaders by the way in Europe, about how to enforce 17 different United Nations resolutions on Iraq. Not one resolution," he insisted as he banged the podium, "but 17 different resolutions. And we liberated Iraq, and that decision has been made. It's over with, and now it's time to unify for the sake of peace.

"Forget the charm part," he added. "I believe that message is a message that people can understand. And they're beginning to see that the strategy is working."

Bush's biggest concession to Europe this week was to show up--a point he repeated without fail at every stop. That's no small thing for the chronically insecure Europeans, who enjoy the president paying his respects to the European Union. His second biggest concession was to say he supported a "strong Europe"--a phrase that sounded like an endorsement of European integration and especially a stronger defense strategy. But Bush's aides insisted such interpretations were misplaced. That left European audiences troubled by what sounded like mixed messages--even if their political leaders seemed happy. Bush said it was "ridiculous" to think that the United States was ready to attack Iran. "Having said that, all options are on the table," he added, prompting chuckles among Europe's reporters.

In case anyone was unclear, Bush made it crystal clear that the Europeans could count on one thing to go unchanged. One reporter at NATO asked about the "old and new Rumsfeld," recalling the Defense Secretary's recent joke about his infamous criticism of the "Old Europe" of France and Germany.

Without skipping a beat, Bush jumped in with his own position: "Same old Bush."