President Bush's weeklong tour through Berlin, Rome, Paris and London appears every bit the glamorous old-style farewell tour with a leisurely schedule, jaunts to country castles and lavish dinners.
But it's actually a high-stakes diplomatic mission, spurred by Bush's fear that Iran is an increasingly urgent threat and that Europe may not take it seriously enough.
Bush hasn't been popular in Western Europe after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “A lot of people like America. They may not sometimes necessarily like the president, but they like America,” Bush told a reporter from Slovenia.
So it was puzzling that he decided to buzz through all of Western Europe's Big Four nations this week, risking large protests and pointed questions, instead of choosing, as he usually does, to stop in formerly communist, newly democratic Central and Eastern European countries where he always gets rock-star welcomes.
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Iran helps solve the mystery.
Bush started his trip Monday in Slovenia, where he will take part in the annual U.S.-European Union summit. He also is staying in Italy to see his old friend, Premier Silvio Berlusconi, and for his third meeting with Pope Benedict XVI; visiting Germany to chat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, spending two days in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, going to Windsor Castle to see Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, and stopping in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to hail the power-sharing agreement between Protestants and Catholics.
But mostly, Bush is visiting nations and leaders critical to a stepped-up U.S. effort to get new and harsher measures aimed at preventing Iran from proceeding with a suspected plan to build a nuclear bomb. Britain, Germany and France, along with the United States, Russia and China, are developing a package of fresh penalties and incentives aimed at reining in Tehran's alleged atomic ambitions. Italy wants to join the effort, too, and Bush said in a television interview that he was open to it.
“He is going to try to stiffen European resolve on Iran,” said Stephen Flanagan, director of the international securities program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It's a high priority of Bush's, and he is running against two quickly ticking clocks.
One is his own. His presidency is set to end in a mere seven months.
The other is Iran's. In defiance of the first three rounds of mostly symbolic U.N. Security Council resolutions, Tehran has not only continued its enrichment of uranium, producing material that could be used to power an electricity plant or make a nuclear bomb, but also has expanded and improved it. Assessments vary, but it is widely presumed Tehran will have enough material for a weapon within a few years.
A U.S. intelligence report in December said Iran once had an active warhead program, but shelved it in 2003. But the administration argues that the continuing enrichment means the military program could be restarted at any time, and without the knowledge of the outside world.
Those competing to succeed Bush – Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain – have differences over whether to talk to Iran's leaders. But both have pledged to be as tough as Bush, including holding out the threat of force, to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear-armed.
Still, either administration will take some time after the January inauguration to gear up, both in personnel and policy development. And that is time that Bush and his administration fear cannot afford to be wasted.
“I will continue to work on this trip to talk about the dangers of a nuclear Iran – not civilian nuclear power, but a program that would be aimed at blackmail or destruction – and that we've got to work to stop them from learning how to enrich,” Bush said in an interview with RAI TV of Italy.