After a church service during President Bush's week-long European tour, French President Jacques Chirac surprised Bush, who had not planned to speak, by leading him to a stage and delivering a long speech that included criticism of U.S. policies.
Bush's visit with Chirac was the third in as many countries where he had found his message drowned out by Europeans with other plans.
In Berlin, while Bush waited to address the German Bundestag, the president of the parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, criticized the U.S. president's positions on the environment and international cooperation. Bush has developed a comfortable relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but even he had undercut Bush earlier in the trip by vigorously defending Russia's support for an Iranian nuclear power plant just after Bush had said Putin "gave me some assurances that I think will be very comforting for you to listen to."
At the same time Bush's longtime critics back home are beginning to find their voices, world leaders were less deferential of him during his week abroad than they had been as he assembled his anti-terror coalition after Sept. 11. The stereotypes of Bush as a bumbler were revived by European opinion makers, an impression Bush fueled by his uneven performance during the trip, which ended Tuesday night. Even as Bush assuaged some European concerns about his policies, analysts said, he aggravated doubts about himself.
Bush, who at one point volunteered that he was feeling the effects of jet lag, had a heavy schedule, with events sometimes lasting until midnight. The result reinforced what Philip H. Gordon, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and France, called "the perception in Europe that he is unsophisticated."
This blow to Bush's reputation came even as he "effectively addressed many of the concerns that the United States in general, and Bush in particular, felt Europe no longer counted," Gordon said.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice acknowledged the cultural dissonance but said Bush had delivered his vision of the transatlantic alliance's new responsibility to confront terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. "He is the American president, and of course Americans are different. But what has held the Old World and the New World together are values," Rice said yesterday. "You can't go through what we've just been through on September 11th and not feel very strongly the support of your friends, and that's what the president went to express."
White House officials said the trip was productive based on the feedback U.S. officials are getting from their counterparts in the capitals Bush visited. These officials said a key purpose of the visit was the private meetings the president held as he continued developing relationships with other heads of state. "The Germans, the Russians, the French are over the moon; they're so pleased," an official said.
This official said any awkward moments should not detract from the historic nature of the Treaty of Moscow, the agreement that Bush and Putin signed to reduce their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds, five months after Bush announced he would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. "Remember the predictions of dire consequences and Armageddon if the president got out of the ABM Treaty?" the official said. "Instead of a new arms race, what you have is historic arms reduction."
Some of the reviews support the White House argument. The German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, as translated by the BBC, complimented Bush for having "stayed true to himself" with his speech in Berlin's Reichstag. French newspapers were filled with stories of how the U.S. president considered France his closest ally in the war on terrorism.
Paul J. Saunders, director of the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, said Bush had a mixed reception in France but probably helped his image in Russia and Germany. "A number of the German parliamentarians expected to see a two-headed monster and were pleasantly surprised that the president has just one head," he said.
Yet that was not the singular view in Europe. London's Independent said from Rome that Bush "sometimes seems unsure which European country he is visiting." An article in London's Daily Mirror began by saying, "Bumbling George Bush was lost for words last night." The Times of London carried a preview headlined, "How the Atlantic widened under George W. Bush," then followed up with a dispatch beginning, "Like certain distinctive wines, President George W. Bush does not travel well."
In Rome, the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper played down the importance of the summit, which was perceived by many there mainly as an attempt by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to burnish his credentials as an international statesman.
Noisy street protests and media criticism against U.S. presidents visiting Europe are hardly new. The elite of European government and media spoke with amusement of Bush's folksier moments, including his decision to thank Putin for mowing the grass and the widely shown video of the president discarding his gum in his hand before signing the treaty. Bush's put-down of an American reporter who asked Chirac a question in French has become the emblem of the trip in much of the European media.
Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, had said the trip consisted mostly of feel-good photo opportunities that were insufficient "to overcome the friction which results from genuine conflicts of interest or differences of opinion between the United States and Europe, and which have been exacerbated by the administration's rather cavalier attitude toward European opinion."
No matter what the circumstance, administration officials said everything was fine. As Bush prepared to leave Russia, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared that "the president is very pleased with the trip, as you might well imagine, and we all are." In Rome, Powell pronounced that "President Bush is this afternoon finishing up what we believe has been a most successful and historic trip to Europe."
Yet even Powell, the top internationalist in the administration, acknowledged the truth of one of the Europeans' largest complaints: that the United States, while listening to European views, goes its own way. The administration will "continue to stick with those positions that we believe are the right positions and the principled positions," Powell said.
"The president is that kind of a leader," Powell said. "He speaks clearly, he speaks directly, and he makes sure people know what he believes in. And then he tries to persuade others why that is the correct position. When it does not work, then we will take the position we believe is correct."
Correspondents Peter Baker in Moscow and Keith B. Richburg in Paris and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company