Bush running out of foreign friends


President Bush’s stalwart foreign friends are fading fast.

Most of the leaders who defied criticism at home to stand with him on Iraq and win his friendship are no longer players on the world stage, or are on their way out. And it was a small band of brothers to begin with.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he’ll step down before the next national election and is coming under increasing pressure from his own party to do it sooner. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid a farewell visit to the United States last week. He is leaving office in September.

Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi resigned in early May after his party’s election losses. Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar was earlier forced out of office, the first casualty of supporting Bush on Iraq.

“It can be a little lonely at the top. And to have stalwart friends like Koizumi or John Howard in Australia or Prime Minister Blair matters a lot,” said Michael Green, a former Bush national security aide.

Koizumi will be especially missed, Green said. Bush played host to the Japanese leader at the White House on Thursday, and then took Koizumi _ an unabashed Elvis Presley fan _ to the home of the rock-and-roll king, Graceland, in Memphis on Friday.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, “Koizumi would send handwritten notes. You know, `Hang in there.'” The notes “probably counted for a lot” with Bush, said Green, as did Koizumi’s support on Iraq even though the war was unpopular with the Japanese.

That leaves Howard. Australia has around 1,320 troops in Iraq and the Middle East and Howard has repeatedly said Australia will remain in Iraq for as long as its troops are needed _ or until the Iraqi government asks them to withdraw _ despite widespread public opposition in Australia to the war.

Newer leaders, particularly those in Europe, have seen the political penalties paid by those who stood too close to Bush _ and have been more reluctant to embrace him so openly. One exception is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has visited the White House twice this year. She and Bush seemed to hit it off, even though they had some differences. Bush, en route to a summit of world leaders in Russia this month, will stop to see the old East Germany where Merkel grew up.

Goodwill that flowed to the United States right after the Sept. 11 attacks has long been offset by growing opposition to the war in Iraq and to Bush’s foreign policy leadership, polls show.

A May poll by the Pew Research Center shows Bush’s ratings and confidence in him to do the right thing on foreign affairs to be slipping ever lower in Europe _ even at a time of growing apparent consensus with European allies on efforts to restrict the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

“Clearly the U.S. presence in Iraq is a drag on the image of the United States. It is cited more often than the current Iranian government as a threat to regional stability and world peace by many people in these countries,” said Pew director Andrew Kohut.

Bush lacked his father’s coalition-building prowess, notably on Iraq. But, like his father, he developed particularly close relationships with some leaders and liked to fuss over them.

His father took the late King Hussein of Jordan for spins in his speedboat, escorted then-French President Mitterrand on a walk in the woods in Maine and dragged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to an Orioles-Red Sox baseball game.

Clinton, like the current Bush, courted Blair. He enjoyed eating outings with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and for seven years hugged, laughed and bickered with Russian President Boris Yeltsin as if they were fraternity brothers. He had an especially warm relationship with then-South African President Nelson Mandela.

Reagan developed close friendships with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Personal relationships are important … but ultimately relationships are between nations,” said Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And I think you have to be careful and not find yourself in a situation that you are influenced one way or the other about a state just because of your personal relationship.”

Time and politics have taken a toll not just on Bush buddies, but on his critics.

Among the harshest anti-war critics, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was retired by voters earlier this year. French President Jacques Chirac, with approval ratings hovering near an all-time low, is not widely expected to seek a third term. Jean Chretien, Canada’s prime minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq, is long gone.

Bush started off with a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that soured soon after Putin criticized the Iraq war.

Palling around with foreign leaders “is part of the protocol now,” said Stephen Hess, a White House aide in the Eisenhower administration and a student of the presidency. “It’s useful to understand each other and it certainly promotes civility in the world, which is most needed.”

Still, Hess said, presidents and prime ministers are keenly aware of their own national interests. He said he is suspicious of claims that leaders can win concessions because of special relationships, “the twinkle in somebody’s eye or a firm handshake.”

© 2006 The Associated Press

Comments are closed.