West Wing Story: Wooing Europe

They might as well have called President George W. Bush's trip to Europe and Russia this week a victory tour. At least that's how he and his staff seem to be viewing it.

They have some reason to be smug: Bush's historic Reichstag speech got a better-than-expected reception from Berlin's parliamentarians. And, in spite of the doomsayers' warnings, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty did not precipitate World War III. "[It's] a moment of vindication," said one senior administration official before Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, today signed a treaty reducing nuclear warheads to below 2,200 each over the next 10 years.

Last June, when Bush first met with Putin, the president said he could "trust" the former KGB agent. Pundits back home called Bush naive. This week, when a European reporter asked Bush again if he trusted Putin, the president himself couldn't resist a little self-congratulation. "They said, how do you know? I said, 'I looked into his eyes and was able to glimpse into his soul.' See, and I've been proven right," Bush said.

At least for now. The new treaty does have "an out" in case there "are conditions of which things may change," Bush explained. Either side can withdraw with three months notice and the warheads will be stored, not destroyed. If anything has been clear on this trip--to Berlin and Moscow so far--it's that the world changes in ways no one can predict.

When national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice first visited the Soviet Union in 1979, she says, "It was a place where the first signs that you saw when you drove into the city, into Moscow or into Leningrad were big neon signs: GLORY TO THE COMMUNIST PARTY ... THE WORKERS' REVOLUTION WILL BE VICTORIOUS. Today, there is a banner draped across the street near our Moscow hotel that reads: MONEY BEGETS MONEY."

In Manezh Square, the site of so many mass demonstrations during the Soviet era, there is a new shopping arcade underground and a big construction project above. Back in 1979, Rice explains, "Everything was a state-owned enterprise. Everything was a state store. There were long lines. There was nothing on the shelves. People had no choices." Today, not only is there a sign near our hotel pointing the way to the nearest McDonald's, but the Russians have come up with their own fast-food chain: Yolki Polki.

And yet, differences--and hostility--remain. Both here in Moscow and in Berlin, a few people greeted the president's motorcade with obscene gestures. Protestors in Berlin criticized what they saw as Bush's unilateralism and warmongering. Even at the Bundestag, the German parliament, Bush got an icy introduction from Wolfgang Thierse, that body's president. Thierse raised the specter of disagreements between the United States and Europe over steel tariffs and the International Criminal Court. As Bush was making his speech, some delegates raised a banner that read: MR. BUSH--MR. SCHRDER: STOP YOUR WARS. A security officer quickly ripped it out of their hands as other delegates shouted them down. Later, the Bundestag's floor whip apologized to Bush.

The president's team knew that Bush's Berlin speech came amid tensions in Europe. "We were obviously aware that we were making a speech like this in a context of an enormous amount of speculative and occasionally insinuating op-eds from European and American chattering classes about the demise of--or the deterioration of--the transatlantic alliance," explained one senior administration official.

They also knew that the bar was extremely high for an American president giving a speech in Berlin, where both John F. Kennedy ("Ich bin ein Berliner) and Ronald Reagan ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall") made history. While Bush's speech made passing reference to his predecessors--including "dad"--one speech advisor said that there was no intention to echo back to those famous lines. "That didn't enter into my head, at least. It was, do we have something to say? What is our moment?"

Overall, Bush's Berlin speech went down better than expected. Speaking with gravitas, the president gave the best big-picture speech since his Sept. 20 address to the U.S. Congress in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington.

The Berlin address was steeped in history, too. The Reichstag, the building housing the Parliament, still has graffiti scrawled on its walls from when the Soviets overran the Nazis in 1945. (The hotel where Bush stayed abutted a huge Nazi bunker on top of which Berliners are building a Holocaust memorial. The bunker is so fortified that the amount of dynamite it would take to blow it up would have taken down the surrounding buildings.) With such a historic backdrop, Bush cast the war on terrorism in light of World War II, calling it "the new totalitarian threat." "September 11th, 2001, cut a deep dividing line in our history--a change of eras as sharp and clear as Pearl Harbor, or the first day of the Berlin blockade," the president said. "There can be no lasting security in a world at the mercy of terrorists--for my nation, or for any nation."

Clearly Bush sees the war on terror as the calling of his generation. When a German reporter asked him to explain his "goals" on Iraq," Bush got animated about the threat posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. "It's a threat to Germany, it's a threat to America, it's a threat to civilization itself," said Bush, practically riding the podium like a bucking bronco. Then leaning into the microphone (much to the dismay of the TV crews who have to quickly scramble to readjust their sound levels), Bush said: "We can play like it's not there, we can hope it goes away. But that's not going to work."

Bush's body language has always been revealing. In Moscow today, at a brief press conference with Putin, Bush was relaxed, almost mellow. This time he said he believed Putin's answers on the controversial subject of the nuclear technology Russia is providing to Iran--something one administration official called the biggest nonproliferation threat. "We spoke very frankly and honestly about the need to make sure that a nontransparent government run by radical clerics doesn't get their hands on weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.

The president smiled as he signed the new treaty--something he initially wanted to seal with a handshake rather than a signature. But Bush aides reiterated that this treaty reflected just how much relations with Russia have changed: it took only six months to negotiate, was just three pages long and did not have an acronym. Just to tweak the administration, reporters started jokingly calling it TOM I--for the Treaty of Moscow.