The European education of George W.

They booed him, but the Europeans know they have to live with Bush. And though his speeches hint that travel might yet give him the vision thing, Russia is a different story.

Published June 16, 2001 6:00PM (EDT)

However this stormy five-day visit to Europe goes down as a chapter in the second Bush's presidency, at least the president knows the map of Europe as he never did before.

If that sounds merely flippant, it shouldn't. Neither Bush nor his advisors have made much secret of the fact that this is a president who had a lot to learn about the world coming into this job. He's had a memorable education in recent days, even if his caution-to-the-wind cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the last day of the trip reinforced all the most extreme views of the man's never-never grasp on reality.

The smiles often looked forced in Brussels and Gvteborg earlier this week as heads of state scrunched together for the cameras during Bush's first trip to Europe. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice often sat rigidly behind Bush as he spoke, her gaze as fixed, her jaw as set and her imagination seemingly as filled with dark possibilities as any Secret Service agent ready to dash in front of a coming bullet. But as much as newspaper accounts are playing up the rift between Europe and the United States, in fact, this trip had more to do with easing that rift than widening it.

The whole topic of Bush and Europe has turned into a kind of funhouse mirror on acid in the U.S. media. Media types paraphrase other media types citing White House officials paraphrasing media types. It's business as usual, Beltway style, but does not have much to do with how Bush is perceived over here on the Continent.

Sure, a lot of European leaders and intellectuals see the man as a pint-sized intellect with a limited worldview. But Europeans tend to be more adult about belittling each other than Americans, meaning they don't fully believe all the nonsense they are spewing but are determined to enjoy spewing it nonetheless. Any current of anti-Americanism sweeping Europe was always pressing against a very solid conviction that economically and militarily, to start with the basics, the U.S. is always going to be the 800-pound gorilla. The Europeans know, in other words, that whether Bush is a lightweight or not, they are going to have to deal with him for at least a few more years.

And that may not be entirely bad -- assuming Bush is able to take advantage of this trip to expand his awareness of European political sensibilities. Bush has shown that his views on major issues can evolve rapidly as he learns more about them, which could eventually be a factor in crucial strategic initiatives like his missile defense plan. Europe's reaction to that endeavor could be summed up by a headline Friday in Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper, above the fold, which pictured Bush next to a bad-TV-movie extraterrestrial, and asked "Is NATO afraid of UFOs?"

Taking the podium Friday afternoon in Warsaw to offer his first major speech of the trip, Bush had the look of a kid who has finally finished those icky green beans Mom forced him to eat and can now start in on the peach cobbler. He seems to like giving speeches, and some people think he's good at it. Bush offered support for the inexorable expansion of NATO and got in quite a few memorable lines.

"No more Munichs," Bush declared, wagging his finger. "No more Yaltas."

The same day, Putin was in Shanghai lining up China and Central Asian countries in support of preserving the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty that Bush is seeking to break. Putin even broke unwritten rules of diplomatic subtlety by telling the TV cameras that his Chinese friends asked him to pass along a message to the U.S. president when Bush and Putin met on Saturday for the first time. Meanwhile, Bush used the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to declare that "no nation should be used as a pawn" in setting the agenda of others. But coming on the eve of his meeting with Putin, that seemed to be exactly what he was doing. And it thrilled Bush's host Poles to no end.

What mattered most was that Bush was here in territory so recently under the control of the Soviet Union, looking out at people whose family or friends lived with the threat of the gulag. Other than that trip to China Bush made as a young man, which seems to have made little impression on him, Bush has not had much experience with this sort of thing, and he seemed to rise to the occasion, at least rhetorically.

"Today, I have come to the center of Europe to speak of the future of Europe," he said as Laura Bush sat nearby in Nancy Reagan red. "Some still call this 'the East' -- but Warsaw is closer to Ireland than it is to the Urals. And it is time to put talk of East and West behind us," he said.

"Through trenches and shell-fire, through death camps and bombed-out cities, through gulags and food lines men and women have dreamed of what my father called a Europe 'whole and free.' This free Europe is no longer a dream. It is the Europe that is rising around us. It is the work that you and I are called on to complete. We can build an open Europe -- a Europe without Hitler and Stalin, without Brezhnev and Honecker and Ceaucescu and, yes, without Milosevic."

Then he offered support for Europe's burgeoning democracies. "Our goal is to erase the false lines that have divided Europe for too long. The future of every European nation must be determined by the progress of internal reform, not the interests of outside powers ... All of Europe's new democracies, from the Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between, should have the same chance for security and freedom -- and the same chance to join the institutions of Europe -- as Europe's old democracies have. I believe in NATO membership for all of Europe's democracies that seek it and are ready to share the responsibilities that NATO brings."

The crowd lapped it up, of course, and so did Poland's deputy foreign minister, Radek Sikorski. "I think it was a brilliant speech," he gushed. "It was thoughtful and moving. Poland wants to anchor itself in the West and provide stability. Mr. Bush said 'No more Munichs. No more Yaltas' ... We don't have to choose (between Russia and the United States). We want to be the glue."

Bush has often seemed during his weeks in high office like a man who did not quite believe the words he was delivering had meaning. What's clear is the job of president is going to force him to place his ideas in a much larger context, and to wean him from the habit of thinking that just because he says something, everyone ought to think that's somehow enough.

For example, European outrage over the Bush approach to global warming remains at a fever pitch even as Bush wraps up his trip to Europe. But it has been at fever pitch for weeks now. And not much has changed with this trip. Though Washington reporters quickly seized on Bush's speech on global warming Monday as a success, most Europeans saw his call for more research as thin gruel. But when Bush says something like "Kyoto is not based upon science!" the way he did in Spain early on in this trip, he might now be slightly more tuned into the fact that statements like that are in effect giving the finger to those who consider Kyoto almost sacred.

Practically speaking, it matters little that Bush seems to have a seventh grade grasp of geopolitics. The key question is: What does this mean about how Bush will handle foreign policy during the remaining three and a half years of his term?

What's clear now, if it wasn't before, is that no one knows the answer to that question, least of all George W. Bush himself. As someone given to flopping around from position to position as he heeds the advice first of one White House faction and then another, he often seems wildly unpredictable. Soon after taking office, he alarmed Russia experts by seeming to go out of his way to ratchet up hostilities with Russia by expelling 50 alleged spies in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy affair. Fast forward to Saturday in Slovenia and you had Bush assuring us that the leader whose troops routinely murder civilians in Chechnya each week is "an honest, straightforward man."

Bush and his handlers may be right that in the modern media age, being president is all about selling images, all about playing the part. As the son of an ultimate Washington insider, he somehow cast himself in the highly improbable role as outsider during the campaign. But one part Bush cannot convincingly play is that of the seasoned old pro of international relations -- it's certainly not a role he could have learned hanging out at the ballpark as part owner of the Texas Rangers. When Bush talked about looking into Putin's eyes and seeing his soul, it sounded like he had been prepped by Rice to mention the "Russian soul," and figured this was his chance.

But it's Bush's single-mindedness in dealing with the Russians that is most unsettling. He'll do anything to push through his missile defense plan -- including buying off the Russians (Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans are heading to Moscow soon, Bush told Putin) if he has to. Worse yet, he'll soft-pedal the moral stain of Chechnya if it suits his purpose.

"I was able to get a sense of his soul," Bush told the cameras after his visit with Putin Saturday. "He's an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family ... I wouldn't have invited him to my ranch if I didn't trust him."

This personalization of the political may play well to a distracted American public, but that does not make it acceptable, given the realities of what's happening right now. As the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl wrote this week: "What officialdom in Moscow and Washington alike don't want to hear is that the campaign by the Russian military and police against Chechnya's separatists has degenerated into a full-fledged dirty war, complete with disappearances, mass graves, systematic torture and summary execution of civilians. In its scale and ferocity, it far exceeds the campaign Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic waged against the Albanians of Kosovo before NATO intervention; in the stunning impunity of its state-sponsored brutality, it is like the Latin American dirty wars of the 1970s."

Imagine if Bush had met with Milosevic when he drove the ethnic-Albanians out of Kosovo a few years back -- and told the world how "honest" and "straightforward" he was.

So what's the world to make of the new American president? Is he as clueless as he so often seems, for example talking on this European trip about how no one should call him a unilateralist, since he's willing to listen? Bush apparently forgot that unilateralism refers to action -- and that listening without hearing is meaningless. It's too soon to tell, but perhaps Bush will absorb enough from this trip that his famously short attention span won't be as short next time he holds an Oval Office meeting with his advisors on the subject of Europe.

This week's visit was just a warm-up for a future trip to Europe, which helps explain the cowardly scheduling. (Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia?) The man needed to go for a little foreign-policy ride on training wheels -- and that's what he did. He even fell down a few times.

He found out that the pats on the shoulder he likes to give so much only go so far in cementing new relationships with his fellow leaders. Diplomacy requires finesse and etiquette. The backstage talk between heads of state sounded pretty nasty at times, based on the quotes that trickled out into the press. As one "source" sniffed to the London Independent about the tone, "Bush is certainly not a diplomat."

No, he's not. But it's early enough to hold out hope that he's at least a man who can learn from the education he's receiving, and even possibly develop some of what used to be called the vision thing in his father's day. He returns to Europe next month, and he will stop off to visit Tony Blair in Britain on his way to Italy for a G-8 summit. That's two major European countries. A major improvement on his current itinerary -- he'll be playing in the European big leagues. Bush made a lot of people mad this time out, and came across as needlessly clumsy. But once again, he may be stupid like a fox -- he may be setting himself up to be underestimated, so later everyone can herald all the progress he's made. Or maybe, he really is bull-headed enough to do just what he wants to do, no matter the consequences.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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