Near the end of a European tour dogged by massive protests against his military and environmental policies, President Bush met a far warmer welcome Friday in Poland, where memories of life under communism support deep pro-American sentiments.
"We think it's thanks to the United States that we became members of NATO," said Grzegorz Lada, a coach who brought a small-town children's soccer team to try to see the presidential motorcade and ended up watching Bush greet the boys individually. "Since we joined NATO, we finally started to feel safe."
Bush won at least one new supporter with the gesture to the soccer team, whom he met after a session with Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek at a former royal residence in a Warsaw park.
"It was super," said Kamil Szymura, 11. "He asked us our names, and he wished us success in our game tomorrow."
More than 10,000 protesters from across Europe marched against Bush in Goteborg, Sweden, on Thursday. But a coalition of seven leftist groups turned out only about 150 protesters outside the Warsaw University library, where Bush gave what the White House touted as the major speech of his European tour.
Bush stressed U.S. support for expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, yet he called for "a constructive relationship" with Russia, arguing that the two goals do not conflict.
"We will not trade away the fate of free European peoples," Bush declared. "No more Munichs. No more Yaltas. Let us tell all those who have struggled to build democracy and free markets what we have told the Poles: 'From now on, what you build, you keep. No one can take away your freedom or your country.' "
Even as NATO grows, it is "no enemy of Russia," Bush said. "We can build an open Europe--a Europe without Hitler and Stalin, without Brezhnev and Honecker and Ceausescu--and yes, without Milosevic," he stressed, listing former dictators or authoritarian leaders of Germany, the Soviet Union, East Germany, Romania and Yugoslavia.
Bush's self-assessment as a man of peace was vigorously disputed by the protesters outside, who carried posters with messages such as "Bush Into Outer Space, Missiles to the Garbage Pit."
The most popular poster showed mug shots of Bush and declared: "Wanted: For Crimes Against Humanity and Our Planet. Be careful when you meet him. He's suffering from the illusion that he's a democratically elected president of the United States. Do not come close. He's armed with nuclear weapons and he's dangerous."
The protesters burned a U.S. flag and engaged in a few scuffles with pro-Bush demonstrators, who nearly matched them in numbers.
About 60 students came by bus from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to plead for its admission to NATO. They made their point by singing a little ditty in English: "We want NATO. Sha, la la, la la. We want NATO right now!"
"I think, generally speaking, the attitude to Bush and the United States is very positive here," said Krzysztof Szulzyk, 26, a math student who joined the pro-Bush demonstrators. "The American dream is viewed very positively. America is associated with freedom."
Bush also received generally favorable coverage in Polish newspapers, which reported heavily Friday on expectations for his visit.
"Contrary to charges that come sometimes from capitals competing with Washington, Poland is no 'American Trojan horse' in Europe," commentator Jan Skorzynski wrote under the headline "Poland's Best Ally" in Rzeczpospolita, a leading newspaper. "But taught by tragic historical experience, it knows it has to have an ally on which it can rely. The America of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton has been the best ally of Poland's democracy."
Skorzynski also noted that Bush's proposed missile defense system had won the endorsement of Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and that during Bush's time in Europe, other leaders have moved toward a more positive assessment of it.
Lada, the soccer coach, said that it seems "the entire European Union is against this missile program" but that he believes "a large part of Polish society thinks this is something that is needed."
The rival demonstrators exchanged verbal barbs, with the leftists screaming "Fascists!" at the Bush supporters and the pro-Bush crowd yelling "Red thieves!" and "Reds to Cuba!" Police detained at least one anti-Bush protester.
"I think this is democracy," Violetta Wozniak, 32, an advertising agency employee, said as she watched the competing groups of demonstrators from her office door.
She personally favored the pro-Bush camp, she added.
"I think America, to a large extent, deserves credit for the changes that happened in this country," she said. "Bush's father had quite large support here. It's only a decade that we've had democracy."
Anchorman Tomasz Lis, assessing Bush's visit for the private TVN network's evening news, commented that "after the protests in Brussels and in Goteborg, President Bush definitely seems to be walking on friendlier ground here in Poland."
Times staff writer Edwin Chen and Ela Kasprzycka of The Times' Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.