Of all the things the American press corps could say about President Bush’s whirlwind four-day “charm offensive” in Europe, claiming that the “tour has succeeded where previous fence-mending exercises failed last year,” seems a stretch.

But this is exactly what Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey did today in a Web-only column. Despite the fact that a wide gap remains between the United States and Europe over hard issues — how to proceed in Iraq and in Iran, just to name a couple of sticky ones — the authors turn away from policy disputes in favor of a study of the less objective aspects of human interaction. Indeed, they reassure us, “it’s the body language and the throwaway comments that tell the real story of his fence-mending trip.”

So forget all those press conferences and private meetings and pesky policy differences; concentrate instead on the forced smiles and uncomfortable handshakes offered to a couple hundred flashbulbs. “The political theater of group photos is far more revealing than most news conferences,” opine Wolffe and Bailey.

Wolffe and Bailey are not alone in declaring the European trip a success based on little more than studying the faces and torsos of Bush, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But when it comes down to actual results achieved, they concede that the commitments the Europeans have promised the president “are relatively minor in terms of cash and manpower.” Although they are “important signals of a more positive attitude,” they write, “[t]hese are token gestures that won’t change the dynamic in Iraq on their own.”

Reuters, taking the same tack as Newsweek, writes that the president and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have put their “row over Iraq behind them” — despite the fact that 12,000 Germans protested the president’s stop in Mainz.

Back in the reality-based community, the New York Times takes a decidedly more skeptical approach in an afternoon story, noting that, “[u]nderneath the warm public words lay the tense reality that Mr. Bush did not give Mr. Schroeder or the French and British what they have repeatedly sought: direct American participation in the talks [between European nations and] Iran.”

And the European press itself — apparently unaware of the journalistic principal of reaching sweeping conclusions based on whether someone frowns (or not) — painted the president’s trip in a decidedly less optimistic light. As the German Deutsche Welle reported today, “European leaders were full of warm words for U.S. President George W. Bush this week, but few are under any illusions that the chill which gripped transatlantic ties over Iraq will thaw so easily.”

Or, as the Financial Times puts it, “President George W. Bush … failed to narrow the divide with European Union leaders over arms sales to China, tactics towards Iran or the future of Nato.” The FT, however, falls into the same trap that Newsweek does, confusing political spin with analysis by quoting a “Bush administration official” saying that, “[w]e have agreed to bury the hatchet over Iraq.”

Silly us … but we’d feel better if there were even one quote from European officials along the same line.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.