San Diego Union-Tribune

June 13, 2001


Bush defends U.S. positions

Much more 'unites us than divides us,' he
says at start of 1st European tour


MADRID, Spain -- President Bush began his first official overseas trip yesterday by vigorously defending his support for missile defense, the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the death penalty and his opposition to a global warming treaty.

Emerging from a day of talks with top Spanish officials before leaving for meetings in Brussels, Belgium, with leaders of the NATO alliance, Bush fought to get off the defensive, stressing his areas of agreement with the allies.

"I recognize that not everybody agrees with the United States on positions," he said during a joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. "But there is so much more that unites us than divides us."

But the friction at times was very public.

Aznar gave cautious support for the U.S. desire to explore missile defense. But he voiced his disagreements with Bush over the death penalty and global warming. And, earlier in the day, the European Union weighed in with a pointed statement objecting to the U.S. president's environmental policies.

There also were large public protests of Bush's backing for the death penalty, which is outlawed across the continent. The protests were triggered by the death Monday of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in the first federal execution in 38 years.

The president was forceful in his support for the death penalty.

"The death penalty is the will of the people in the United States," he said, though acknowledging there were opponents back home as well. "But the majority of the people . . . believe that if the death penalty is certain, just and fair, it will deter crime."

He added, "I understand others don't agree with this position. The
democracies in Europe reflect the will of the people of Europe. That doesn't mean we can't be friends."

Standing next to Bush, Aznar noted, "I personally am against the death penalty."

Bush brushed aside the disagreements and insisted that his trip -- which also will take him to Sweden, Poland and Slovenia and will include his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- will strengthen the trans-Atlantic bond between the United States and Europe.

With most allied leaders more skeptical than Aznar about missile defense, the president sought to assuage their concerns that the U.S. program will lead to a rift with Russia and rekindle a superpower rivalry.

"I look forward to meeting with Russian President Putin to set out a new and constructive and realistic relationship between Russia and the United States," he said, promising to offer Putin "a strong, normal relationship with America."

Acknowledging the wariness of the allies, Bush said, "I look forward to making my case" this week that he will not damage U.S.-Russian relations.

"It starts with explaining to Russia and our European friends and allies that Russia is not the enemy of the United States, that the attitude of mutually assured destruction is a relic of the Cold War," he said.

A senior administration official told reporters that Bush is very much aware of the challenge facing him. "He's going to make the case strongly to the allies that this is not some sneaky way to achieve a strategic superiority over Russia."

The president indicated, though, that he will not let the allied objections deter him from breaking the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 that prevents development of national missile defenses.

"The ABM treaty is a relic of the past," Bush said. "It prevents freedom-loving people from exploring the future. And that's why we've got to lay it aside."

He added, "The days of the Cold War have ended and so must the Cold War mentality."

He promised to work the issue hard during his meetings today in Brussels and tomorrow when he sits down with the 15 leaders of the European Union in Gotenborg, Sweden.

"I believe we're going to make great progress on this issue, I truly do. I realize it's going to require a lot of consultation, but I'm willing to listen."

Administration officials were particularly encouraged by what Aznar said both publicly and privately.

"I think the Spanish are very close conceptually," said the senior official, contending that Aznar accepted Bush's arguments. "The notion that we're running up against barbed wire and meeting stiff, uniform resistance is not consistent with the record," he said.

At the news conference, Aznar urged others to hear Bush out. "What I'm surprised by is the fact that there are people who, from the start, disqualified this initiative," he said.

Spain's government is more conservative than most others in Europe, and that is one reason Spain was picked as Bush's first stop.

Still, Aznar was more pointed in voicing his disagreement with Bush over the president's rejection of the Kyoto protocols negotiated in 1997 to combat global warming. He predicted an intense dialogue as European leaders try to get Bush to switch his position.

That effort began earlier in the day when Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson, representing the EU, expressed official "regret" at the U.S. stand. "Abandoning the Kyoto Protocol would mean postponing international action to combat climate change for years -- and we are already late. We cannot accept this," Larsson said.

The EU blasted Bush's call for more research as "short on action that will contribute to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the short to medium term." The statement also warned that research "should not become an excuse for delaying action."

Bush tried to blur the trans-Atlantic distinctions, saying, "We have a different approach, but we have the same goals." And he cited what he called his country's "energy crisis" as a serious impediment to Kyoto implementation.

On another issue controversial in Spain, the president voiced strong support for the 4-decade-old U.S. embargo of Cuba. "We plan to keep the embargo on Cuba and will do so until Fidel Castro frees prisoners, has free elections, embraces freedom."

The president's visit was not all work. He began his visit amid the antlered deer and wild boars of King Juan Carlos' residence, a sprawling game preserve outside Madrid. He then rode in a helicopter to Aznar's ranch in the town of Los Yebenes, another game preserve.

Bush also injected his speeches with liberal doses of his rough Spanish, Texas-style -- not always with perfect results. In an interview with Spanish television, the president mispronounced Aznar's name and often mangled his verb-noun agreement.

"I have to practice this very lovely language," Bush told the interviewer before switching to English. "If I don't practice, I am going to destroy this language."

An understanding Aznar said Bush is "speaking better and better every day."