ROSTOCK, Germany—President Bush is to arrive in Europe on Monday faced with a long to-do list, and one over-riding obstacle in the way of all of it: For Europeans, he's the least popular U.S. president in history.
Bush's problems extend beyond public opinion. He's at odds with the leaders of countries east and west, whom he's to meet during a summit of leading industrialized nations at a Baltic seaside resort.
Bush disagrees with the major Western European governments over global warming, and he's at loggerheads with Russian leader Vladimir Putin about the U.S. plan to deploy a ballistic missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. He doesn't appear willing to compromise on either issue.
Bush will stop in four East European countries, starting with the Czech Republic, where he lands Monday night, and he'll make his first call on Pope Benedict XVI. The focus, however, will be the annual summit of the so-called Group of Eight—which also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the host, has made global warming the major theme of the summit, but progress on the issue doesn't seem likely. Bush offered a plan Thursday to address climate change through voluntary actions, but before he presented his plan, his NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, publicly expressed doubt that global warming was a serious issue or that anything needs to be done about it.
Bush's plan is to call a conference of the world's biggest 15 polluters, who'd devise a plan to combat climate change through voluntary actions. Even departing British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's staunchest ally in Europe, said it isn't enough. "I want to see us now go further from what President Bush laid out," he said while traveling in South Africa.
Merkel noted, without being explicit, that "no one can avoid the question of global warming anymore." But her top global warming negotiator, Bernd Pfaffenbach, rejected a key element of Bush's plan, which is to shut the United Nations out of a leadership role on the issue. Pfaffenbach told German reporters that the U.N.'s role in combating climate change is "non-negotiable."
Besides global warming, the summit is expected to deal with African aid, an issue where there's expected to be some agreement on goals, if not on the means of attaining them. And while it's not on the agenda, Putin's public anger over Bush's plan to deploy anti-missile missile batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic could spill over into the discussion.
The missile defense plan, a key foreign policy aim from the first days of the Bush administration, has divided Europeans, in particular Social Democrats who now openly oppose it, as well as the U.S. Congress, whose Democratic majority is considering legislation to stop the program.
European politicians appear baffled by both sides of the argument. The proposed shield has nothing to do with countering Russian intercontinental missiles, its unproven technology may not work and it's designed to defeat a nonexistent threat.
Critics believe that Putin's criticism has more to do with Russian politics than with any actual threat. With elections coming up later this year and next spring in Russia, anxiety about an external threat to Russia is expected to galvanize Putin's support. Critics note that with Europe heavily dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, few Western leaders are willing to dismiss him.
Beneath the radar but potentially explosive is the issue of what to do about Kosovo, if at the U.N. Russia vetoes independence for the Serbian province, as it's threatened to do.
On every issue, President Bush's unpopularity makes success seem unlikely.
"Bush is so disliked that he's not even considered anymore," said Franco Pavoncello, a leading analyst of Italian politics. "He's part of the past. Italians have moved beyond him, and now care only about who will replace him."
Opinion polls typically put Bush's approval ratings in European nations between 10 and 20 percent, but they're higher in Italy and much lower in France and Germany. When asked last autumn if the United States should be in a position of world leadership, 37 percent of Europeans said yes, down from the 64 percent who approved of a U.S. leadership role five years earlier.
Michele de Palma, who organized protests for Italy's Communist Party when Bush arrived in 2004, said the dislike is so deep that he doubted he could get people even to protest the president's arrival in Rome.
"Here, we just want to forget he exists," he said. "In 2004, we had 100,000 protesters. This time, I'll be lucky to find 10,000. People don't see the point, Bush is last year's news."
In traveling to four former Communist countries—the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, and Albania—the president may be hoping to draw friendlier crowds.
Bush is aware of the disaffection of west Europeans. During a recent White House meeting with British Prime Minister Blair, Blair joked that in Europe, "anybody who's sitting there inviting a politician in any part of Europe today, if you want to get the easiest round of applause, get up and attack America, you can get a round of applause. If you attack the President, you get a . ..."
Bush cut in and added, "Standing ovation," to laughter.
(McClatchy correspondent William Douglas in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070531 BUSH itinerary, 20070529 G8 Germany