Bush reports progress on missile defense argument but skepticism remains
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – President Bush said Wednesday that nervous NATO leaders were warming to his missile defense plans but suggested the United States would pursue a high-tech shield with or without Europe’s blessing. ”I’m intent upon doing what I think is the right thing,” he said.
Bush’s counterparts offered mixed appraisals, with the most ardent foes holding firm. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder questioned whether a missile shield would work or trigger an arms race.
Getting his first taste of international summitry, Bush predicted NATO will ”extend our hands and open our hearts” to former communist states seeking membership to the 19-nation alliance in 2002.
He also said NATO should avoid intervention in Macedonia and, after months of mixed signals, committed the United States to finishing the peacekeeping job in the Balkans. He pledged anew to reduce U.S. nuclear arsenals – even if Russia does not follow suit.
”It is the right signal to send that the Cold War must be abandoned forever,” Bush said.
For many of the leaders, this was their first face-to-face session with a president portrayed in the European media as a go-it-alone, arrogant American cowboy. Bush sought to shatter the myths, entering the summit room with little fanfare and slowly making his way around a polished-wood table ringed by European chiefs.
The last to sit down, Bush shook hands with nearly every leader.
Big on nicknames, Bush greeted recently re-elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair with a hearty, ”Hello, Landslide!”
Acknowledging his boss’ reputation abroad, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said: ”Every president is a caricature in Europe until his first trip. They don’t know him yet. They will.”
Bush and his wife, Laura, capped the day with a visit to a famed chocolate shop. Joking, the president told a harried candy clerk handling his order to ”keep it under 20,000 calories.”
It was not so sugary sweet in closed-door meetings at NATO. Even Bush acknowledged resistance to his missile defense idea: ”There’s some nervousness and I understand that, but it’s beginning to be allayed when they hear the logic behind the rationale.”
Opening one session, Bush said, ”We must strengthen our alliance, modernize our forces and prepare for new threats.”
At a news conference later, an unusually animated Bush waved his arms and spoke heatedly in defense of his plan:
”The new threats are threats based upon uncertainty. The threats that somebody who hates freedom or hates America or hates our allies or hates Europe will try to blow us up.”
Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain offered some support, U.S. officials said. Others, like Britain, said they sympathized with Bush’s positions or were willing to keep listening.
Still, he seemed to do little to win over his biggest critics, and even his aides wouldn’t suggest that Bush had swayed any particular leader.
French President Jacques Chirac said the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that Bush wants to scrap ”is a pillar” of European security. ”Russia and China need to be involved,” said Schroeder.
Protests have already become a staple of the five-day, five-nation tour, which began Tuesday.
Two dozen environmental activists chained themselves together at the Belgian military airfield where Air Force One landed. Another 400 gathered close to NATO headquarters to decry Bush’s missile defense, capital punishment and global warming views.
One protester riding a motorized hang-glider high above NATO headquarters carried a sign that read, ”Stop Star Wars.”
More protests are expected Thursday in Sweden at the European Union summit. Bush will visit Poland on Friday to sketch out his vision for Europe’s future, and Slovenia on Saturday to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In other NATO action:
n Bush and fellow NATO leaders showed no stomach for intervening in Macedonia, where Albanian militants and the government are keeping a fragile cease-fire. ”Most people believe there’s still a political solution available,” the president said.
n Bush reaffirmed his support of EU plans for a 60,000-man rapid-reaction corps ready for action in peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts.
n He urged NATO leaders to spend more on their military forces.
Asked if he would go it alone on missile defense, Bush said, ”I don’t think we’re going to have to move … unilaterally. I think people are coming our way. But people know that I’m intent upon doing what I think is the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful.”
Bush wants to spend billions of dollars to develop a missile defense system at odds with the 1972 ABM treaty.
Russia and U.S. allies have warned that such action could prompt a new arms race, though Bush has promised to share technologies in order to protect the former communist superpower from attack.
Blair said the allies need to discuss further how to deal with the threats outlined by Bush.
”Of course there will be areas where we need intensive negotiations, like nuclear defense, but the world is a more secure and more stable place if Europe and America are together,” Blair said.
New Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Bush made some headway. ”I think there are nuances of opinion, but not a real attitude of rejection,” Berlusconi said.
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