Lame-duck Bush sets out on last major world tour

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am

Iraq shadows global goodbye

Winding down his presidency, George W. Bush today begins his last major tour on the world stage, trailed by questions about how much clout he still wields.

Unpopular abroad, as he is at home, Mr Bush nevertheless has been a commanding presence among world leaders for the past seven years. Now, with fewer than 300 days left in his term, other presidents and prime ministers are looking beyond him to see who will occupy his chair in a year.

It's an open question whether Mr Bush's foreign policy priorities will be embraced by his successor in the White House. Other world leaders have to calculate how far they should step out on the ledge with a president whose days are numbered and whose legacy has been darkened by the long and costly war in Iraq.

Air Force One will roar out of Andrews Air Force Base today to whisk Mr Bush to the first in a long-planned series of farewell events. After a brief stop in Ukraine, he stops in Romania to attend his last summit with Nato leaders.

A few days later, Mr Bush will land in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi for his probable final meeting with Vladimir Putin as Russian president, whose successor takes over in May.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted in recent years amid a welter of bitter disputes, and the talks in Sochi have raised hopes that Mr Bush and Mr Putin can lay the foundation for repairing ties.

Around the world, there are hopes the next president will adopt a different style from what critics have called Mr Bush's cowboy diplomacy.

'There seems to be a great deal of enthusiasm, particularly for Barack Obama but also Hillary [Rodham Clinton] on the other side of the Atlantic, that there's going to be some revitalisation of the transatlantic partnership and we start with a clean slate,' said Julianne Smith, Europe programme director for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

'I think a lot of these European countries have found a way to get past the dark shadows of 2003 and '04 when we had divides over Iraq and all the rest. And many of them are looking forward now to the next president in Washington and are already thinking about what the 2009 Nato summit will bring.'

A change of leaders in Germany and France - which led the opposition to the war in Iraq - helped improve sour relations between Europe and the United States. But there still is some lingering ill-will. There has been much transatlantic bickering and finger pointing, most notably about the purpose of Nato and its commitment to Afghanistan.

The US has criticised Germany and other European allies that have refused to allow their troops in Afghanistan to be deployed to the southern heartland of the Taleban insurgency alongside US, British, Canadian, Dutch and other contingents. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has proclaimed himself 'a nag on the issue'.

European leaders are sceptical about winning the Afghanistan mission on the ground or that Nato has the capabilities it needs to succeed. Moreover, they face public opposition about the war and pressure for an exit strategy.

Europeans also say the US has been too preoccupied with Iraq and has not put the proper focus or devoted enough political capital on Afghanistan.

Some of the differences appear to be narrowing. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to deploy more troops to fight the Taleban if Afghans also get more responsibility and there is better co-ordination of non-military efforts.

Mr Bush said it would be hard for any nation to trump Britain as 'our greatest ally' - particularly given its strong backing in Iraq. But he said the relationship with France 'is changing for the better and President Sarkozy gets a lot of credit for that.'