Tue, Jul 22, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Texan old-pals act strictly for the cameras

CRAWFORD MEETING George Bush wants to show he still has European friends while Italy's prime minister wants to show that some are not bothered by his murky business dealings and dubious reputation

AP , CRAWFORD, TEXAS

US President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush welcome Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

They're driving around US President George W. Bush's hot, dusty ranch in a pickup truck with Texas plates, but the president and his guest, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, are playing a game of European politics.

The visit Sunday and yesterday by Bush's Italian buddy and ally in the war in Iraq gives the president a chance to show the world that not all of Europe is cool to his policies -- that trans-Atlantic relations remain strong even though France and Germany didn't back the war.

For Berlusconi, the visit at the ranch is not only a thank-you from Bush for joining with Britain and Spain in support of the war. It's an opportunity for the flamboyant Italian leader, the current president of the EU, to say to the world that France and Germany aren't the continent's only powers.

Bush gave Berlusconi a warm welcome when he arrived by helicopter at the ranch late Sunday afternoon.

Bush shook Berlusconi's hand, draped an arm around him and patted him on the back. Berlusconi kissed first lady Laura Bush on the cheek. The two leaders, dressed in casual clothes, then climbed into Bush's white truck -- Mrs. Bush sat in the back seat -- and drove off.

The White House said the visit will give the two leaders time to talk about stopping the spread of nuclear arms, achieving peace in the Middle East, fighting terror and mending fissures in trans-Atlantic relations.

Big opportunity

"This is Berlusconi's opportunity to cement his relationship as President Bush's second-best European friend" behind British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said John Hulsman, who specializes in US-European relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "For Bush, it's paying back a bingo chip -- as he's done with President Aznar of Spain and, of course, Tony Blair, first and foremost."

Like Berlusconi, Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar have been guests at both the president's ranch and the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

Berlusconi's support of the war has made him unpopular with Germany and France, and his tendency toward brashness has further muddied his relations with Germany. On only the second day of his six-month term as EU president, Berlusconi told a German lawmaker in the European Parliament he would recommend him for a role in a movie as a Nazi concentration camp guard.

Again like Blair and Aznar, Berlusconi's support of the war has cost him politically at home. A majority of Italians were against military action in Iraq; even Pope John Paul II voiced opposition.

"Given the fact that there is very little public support for the war in his country, my sense is that the real reason Berlusconi is standing up with this very strong pro-U.S. stance has to do with defining Italy's position in Europe as a counter to the French and the Germans," said Robin Niblett, an expert on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The Italians -- like the Spanish -- are not happy with the re-emergence of France and Germany as the driving force of the central agenda in Europe. Italians worry that their voice might be diluted."

With the outspoken Berlusconi as premier and self-appointed foreign minister, it will be hard not to hear Italy's voice on the world stage.

The Bush administration cringed when Berlusconi alleged that Western civilization was superior to Islamic culture. He said it two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the United States was trying eagerly to reach out to Muslims. Western civilization is superior because it "has at its core, as its greatest value, freedom, which is not the heritage of the Islamic culture," Berlusconi said.

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