By Stephen Castle
22 June 2006
George Bush is seeking to overcome European hostility to US foreign policy by acknowledging the divisions caused by invading Iraq, and saying he wants to close Guantanamo Bay. But the US President rejected as “absurd” opinion poll findings which show the European public sees the US as a danger to world peace.
At an EU summit in Vienna yesterday, Mr Bush also accused Iran of dragging its feet on a Western incentive package aimed at getting Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment activity. Asked about an Iranian promise to respond to the offer in mid-August, he replied: “It shouldn’t take the Iranians that long to analyse what’s a reasonable deal.”
Mr Bush sought to highlight transatlantic co-operation on issues such as Iran. But he also acknowledged the depth of European concerns about the 460 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, and gave the clearest indication yet how the camp could be emptied.
He said: “I’d like to end Guantanamo, I’d like it to be over with.” But he added that “there are some who need to be tried in US courts. They’re cold-blooded killers. They will murder somebody if they’re let out on the street.”
European opposition to the prison has intensified since three inmates committed suicide earlier this month. Mr Bush preempted European demands for closure by raising the issue himself at the meeting, which was chaired by Wolfgang Schüssel, the Austrian Chancellor.
Planned military trials for suspects have been challenged in the US Supreme Court, and Mr Bush said he was awaiting a court decision this month “to decide the venue in which they should be tried”. He added that he was constrained by concerns that prisoners repatriated to Yemen or Saudi Arabia may face torture in their home countries.
On Iraq, the President said: “We have had our differences on Iraq. I understand our differences: people have strong views on this subject. What is past is past.” Mr Bush, whose arrival in Vienna was greeted by 6,000 protesters, reacted angrily when asked about European perceptions of the US. In a Harris poll, 36 per cent of 5,000 people interviewed in five EU countries described the US as a greater threat than Iran or China. “Absurd – that’s my statement”, said the President when asked about the findings, “we will defend ourselves but, at the same time, we are working with our partners to spread peace and democracy”.
Mr Schüssel supported Mr Bush, describing the poll results as “grotesque”, and adding that Europeans “should be fair from the other side of the Atlantic. We should understand what 11 September meant to the American people”.
On Iran, the EU backed Mr Bush’s insistence that a response to the offer on nuclear energy by 22 August was too slow. The US, Britain, Germany, France, China and Russia have set an informal deadline of mid-July when a G8 industrial nations summit takes place. Some diplomats believe Iran may be buying time to expand its nuclear fuel enrichment programme. Others see it as a sign of debate within a complex Iranian power structure.
On other issues, a summit declaration pledged to strengthen co-operation in dealings with energy suppliers, such as Russia, and to create joint teams to find and seize counterfeit goods.
By Stephen Castle