President Bush closed a three-day summit of the world’s wealthiest industrialized nations Thursday, saying he does not expect NATO to send troops to Iraq but hopes the alliance will agree to train Iraqi security forces.
Bush was looking to the summit to continue his campaign to broaden international support for rebuilding Iraq and to mend fences with European allies. Although he did make some progress with the Germans, he again ran into resistance from the French.
Bush hailed the beginning of a new partnership on Iraq with allies who had opposed the war. But he came away with no specifics on assistance and a parting shot from French President Jacques Chirac, who publicly differed with Bush on several key issues.
Bush and his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told reporters after they breakfasted Wednesday that they were looking for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to play a role in Iraq. But on Thursday, after he met for 35 minutes with Chirac, Bush indicated that his expectations were low.
“I don’t expect more troops from NATO to be offered up. That’s an unrealistic expectation. Nobody is suggesting that,” Bush said. “What we are suggesting is for NATO, perhaps, to help train. Now, that would come at the request of the Iraqi government.”
Still, the president insisted, he had found “a common spirit of wanting to help Iraq progress and become a peaceful country. People understand the stakes involved here.”
Chirac referred to the Iraq war, which Bush has said liberated Iraqis from a tyrant, as “costly in every sense of the word.” He reminded reporters that he had opposed the effort “and my opinion has not changed. All NATO interference in this region seems to me to carry great risks,” Chirac said, “including risks of confrontation of the Christian West against the Muslim East, which, naturally, is a caricature. We’ve clearly indicated that we could not accept a mission of this type for NATO.”
Chirac also said France believes that it would be unfair to other debt-burdened nations to forgive more than 50% of Iraq’s estimated $120-billion debt. The United States has pushed for nations to forgive nearly all of Iraq’s debt to avoid crippling the new government with debt repayments.
In earlier comments, Chirac seemed to dismiss the U.S.-sponsored initiative to promote democratic reforms in the region, which was adopted by the Group of 8 nations here, saying the countries of the region “did not need missionaries of democracy.”
The sharp comments by Chirac, who seemed to speak only for himself, cast doubt on Bush’s upbeat assessment of the summit as the place where the U.S. and those who had opposed the war -- France, Germany, Russia and Canada among them -- had agreed to bury the past and work together to ensure that Iraq stabilized and prospered and that democratic reforms were promoted across the region.
The president will get two more chances this month to push for help. He plans to attend a U.S.-European Union summit in Ireland on June 25 and 26, where Iraq and Middle East peacemaking will dominate the agenda, followed by a NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey, where Bush hopes to find out just how much help the alliance is prepared to offer the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.
Blair said he believed NATO would approve a plan to train Iraqi security forces. If the Iraqi government asked for such assistance, Blair said, “I would be really surprised if NATO didn’t agree with it.” And German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who also strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said he would do nothing to block a NATO role in helping stabilize the Middle Eastern nation.
Blair also noted with approval the summit’s call on the “quartet” -- the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- to meet this month in the Middle East with Israeli and Palestinian representatives “and set out its plans for taking forward in practical terms” the so-called road map for peace. The plan, which is backed by the quartet, aims at reaching a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Arab leaders who attended the summit in Sea Island, Ga., had emphasized that making progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace was necessary for winning support for democratic reforms in the region.
Bush joked frequently with reporters during his news conference but snapped “no” when one suggested that U.S. troops were likely to play a big role in providing security in Iraq.
“There will be an Iraqi face on the security of Iraq,” Bush said.
“The Iraqis will secure their own country, and we are there to help them to do so.”
The president was equally brusque when asked when U.S. troops might be pulled out of Iraq. “When the job is done,” he said.
He responded in a similar vein when asked whether he felt snubbed when leaders of two key Middle Eastern nations -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- declined his invitation to come to the summit to discuss the reform program adopted Thursday by the G-8.
Asked how policy differences with some of the leaders he met here affected their working relationship, Bush joked: “Well, we go to different corners of the room and we face the wall,” then replied soberly, after the laughter subsided, that they are united by common values, whatever their differences.
“I admire strong opinions. I like courageous leaders, people who express their opinions,” Bush said. “You know, to me it’s hard to have a good meeting with somebody if you’re always wondering what their opinion is. You kind of leave feeling somewhat empty. That’s not how you get things done, as far as I’m concerned. When you sit around the table, you say what’s on your mind. You know, ‘Here’s what I think; what do you think?’ And if there’s a difference, try to explain the differences and try to find common ground to work together.”
But even other Europeans seemed dismayed by the French response to Bush’s efforts at fence-mending. The German news agency noted disapprovingly that only Chirac struck a sour note at an otherwise positive summit -- beginning with his refusal, the agency reported, to dress down in casual clothes with the other leaders and culminating in his public fulminations about the summit’s results.
Other European diplomats said that the atmosphere was notably better than last year’s Evian summit, hosted by Chirac shortly after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. Feelings about the war then were still raw, observed Anthony Gooch, a spokesman for the European Union based in Washington who attended the Georgia summit.
In contrast “this has not been a summit of confrontation,” Gooch said.
“There has been a far more cordial atmosphere. There hasn’t been any area where the Europeans and the United States have fallen out.” Gooch attributed the change, in large part, to a new approach by the U.S. “There has been a bit of a sea change that the Americans have taken,” he said. “There has been a shift in approach and in policies. Things have shifted from a more unilateral stance to a far more multilateral stance.”