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The Lame Duck's European Vacation

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So George Bush is in Slovenia tonight on the first stop of his last trip to Europe, where he will attend the annual U.S.-European Union Summit -- lame duckedness dripping from every feather, and a hearty "good riddance" on the lips of millions throughout the "old" and "new' continent. His "victory lap" will take him to Germany, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and a return blessing from the Pope.

As Europeans glance across the pond at the economic and foreign policy calamities Bush is leaving behind, his European agenda is typically detached from the real world, as has been almost every other agenda that he has ever taken to Europe.

Nowhere on Bush's wish list is a last gasp at any attempt to forge a consensus on stabilizing Iraq, or any new idea to forge a trans-Atlantic position on runaway oil prices. Whistling past the U.S. economic graveyard, Bush proclaimed upon his arrival (since no one would believe him here) his long-term confidence in the U.S. economy, all the while as unemployment soared, the dollar slumped further, and Wall Street's roller coaster took a steep dive. But that is for the next president, after all, to worry about -- why ruin a European vacation, after all.

Just as in the U.S., Europeans have long ago concluded that Bush's presidency has done more damage to trans-Atlantic relations than any other president before him. NATO is in disarray in Afghanistan -- without a clear, 21st century mission, Russia has psuedo-Soviet designs on European energy security and democratic allies in Eastern Europe, and there is no foreign policy consensus on resolving the challenges of global warming, Islamic terrorism, or trade.

Not that Bush is without something to discuss. He wants Europeans to agree to impose more economic sanctions on Iran, and he is seeking moral encouragement on behalf of his 11th hour stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Good luck, Mr. President...c'est ne pas possible!

As we approach the post-Bush era in U.S.-European relations, Americans understandably wonder whether there will be dramatic improvement in trans-Atlantic cooperation on the issues that have so divided us. Unfortunately, not in the short-run.

True, a President Obama could breathe incredible amounts of fresh air into the stale, tepid state of our ties. Symbolic and substantive moves, such as closing Guantanamo, supporting Kyoto, and forging a new NATO consensus on effectively waging a successful war in Afghanistan will go a long way toward healing diplomatic wounds.

But there are major divisions that will not magically evaporate with a new president. Europe does not seem inclined to come to grips with NATO's future defense agenda, and there is absolutely no consensus on what to do about failed multilateral trade negotiations following the failed Doha Round, or how to muster enough global support to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Even with relatively new French (Sarkozy), Italian (Berlusconi) and likely British (Cameron) leaders, Europe, too, faces many of the challenges we face here at home, including rising oil prices and their attendant severe economic dislocation, social welfare and immigration difficulties, and a yearning for revitalized global presidential leadership. Surely, the next president will be as important to European global leadership as he will be to American global leadership.

Despite these trans-Atlantic challenges, "change" in Washington is desperately sought by Europeans of all stripes and undoubtedly that change could help alter the stagnation afflicting U.S. European relations. With just 224 days left before the "end", there is no time like the present for Americans and Europeans to begin forging possibilities and opportunities -- lame ducks notwithstanding, "help is on the way!"