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Bush Responds Angrily to Criticism by Europeans

Times Staff Writers

President Bush responded angrily Wednesday to Europe’s differing views over the war in Iraq and the U.S. treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, even as he won renewed expressions of unity from the European Union on nuclear nonproliferation.

European leaders at a U.S.-EU summit here reaffirmed the need to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program and to contain North Korea’s arms program.

With surveys showing a growing animosity in Europe toward the United States amid fears that its anti-terrorism policies and the Iraq war are endangering global stability, the president lashed out during a news conference, raising his voice and several times using the word “absurd” to describe the criticism.

At the same time, he offered a restrained answer to Iran’s announcement earlier in the day that it would wait until late August to respond to the latest proposal from the U.S. and five other nations. The six countries have proposed a package of economic, political and technological incentives aimed at persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear program. The U.S. and its partners fear that Tehran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon; the Iranians say their pursuit of uranium enrichment is for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

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“It shouldn’t take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal,” Bush said.

He similarly made only a mild rebuke to North Korea, which U.S. officials say is engaged in steps that suggest it is preparing to test a missile thought to be capable of reaching U.S. bases in Japan and Guam and possibly Alaska or Hawaii.

“This is not the way that peaceful nations conduct their affairs,” Bush said.

He won broad agreement on the nuclear issues from Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and who played host to the Vienna meeting.

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In his comments on Iran, Schuessel drew on his study of ancient Greek and used the word kyros, which he said translated into “the right moment,” to say: “I think now is the right moment for Iran to take this offer, to grab it and to negotiate.... This is their kyros.”

But for the most part, the post-meeting news conference with Schuessel brought to the fore the differences with which Bush is wrestling on a two-day visit to Central Europe.

The treatment of detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and accusations that the United States has sent prisoners to countries that practice torture have become focal points for the broader opposition to the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and its anti-terrorism campaign. The U.S. reportedly has transferred detainees through European airports or over European airspace.

One reporter told the president that despite the behavior of Iran and North Korea, “most consider the United States the biggest threat to global stability.” Bush responded: “That’s absurd.... We’ll defend ourselves, but at the same time, we’re actively working with our partners to spread peace and democracy. So whoever says that is -- it’s an absurd statement.”

Moments later, when asked whether the United States was promoting or hindering world peace, Bush said: “I thought it was absurd for people to think that we’re more dangerous than Iran. We’re a transparent democracy. People know exactly what’s on our mind. We debate things in the open. We’ve got a legislative process that’s active.”

Later in the day, the president flew to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the unsuccessful uprising in October 1956 that sought to overthrow communist rule. As Bush prepared to leave Vienna, several thousand people holding signs opposing the war in Iraq and other Bush policies filled the Mariahilferstrasse, a main shopping street, marching peacefully toward the Hofburg palace.

Bush and Schuessel offered differing accounts of their private Guantanamo discussion: The president said Schuessel raised it; the chancellor said Bush did.

The chancellor said of Bush: “He came up and said, ‘Look, this is my problem, this is where we are. And I think we should be fair from the other side of the Atlantic. We should understand ... what Sept. 11 meant to the American people. It was a shock.’ ”

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Bush’s willingness to confront the criticism on this trip could end up winning him points among Europeans if he follows through, experts said. Already political pundits are taking a more open view toward his administration, largely because the U.S. has recently been working with Europe on Iran rather than going it largely alone, as it did on Iraq.

“There’s a very popular anti-Americanism from the left to the right which doesn’t look at the facts,” said Armin Turnher, editor in chief of Falter, a respected weekly political and cultural magazine.

“But now most of the opinion leaders are saying, ‘Let’s look at the reality,’ and the reality is that American foreign policy has changed from what it was a couple of years ago. The Americans are not talking about war with Iran, they are working on diplomacy,” Turnher said.

Still, the U.S. will be able to begin to regain credibility only if Bush follows through on a previously stated intention to eventually close Guantanamo.

“If he follows it with actions, then it could begin to make a difference. The broader population doesn’t change its mind with one visit, but it could be a step,” said Christoph Hofinger of Vienna-based Sora Institute, which surveys European attitudes.

Reflecting the more restrained approach European elected officials have taken toward the U.S. in comparison with that of many of their constituents, Schuessel spoke of postwar Europe.

“Don’t forget I was born in ’45,” he said, speaking in English, as he did throughout the session. “At that time, Vienna and half of Austria laid in ruins. And without the participation of America, what fate would have Europe? Where would be Europe today? Not the peaceful, prosperous Europe like we love it and where we live.”


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