EVIAN, France - As world leaders began to gather for an economic summit that many hoped would heal the diplomatic wounds caused by the war in Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac offered a crooked smile and the briefest of handshakes as he met with President Bush yesterday for the first time since the end of hostilities.
With the world watching to see if they would move past their personal bitterness to concentrate without distraction on the world's problems - the economy, security, AIDS, poverty and deadly shortages of drinking water for the poorest of people - Bush and Chirac exchanged strained hellos then headed to lunch at a posh hotel in the French Alps at which some rooms go for $2,000 a night.
The encounter came at the opening of the Group of Eight summit - once an informal event at which the leaders of the world's industrial powers and Russia could discuss the global economy in a relaxed atmosphere.
As the strained greetings indicated yesterday, those days, at least for the time being, are gone.
Despite an agenda to address problems that could cost millions of lives, mostly in Africa, the dispute between Bush and Chirac - and to a lesser degree German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder - hung over the summit like the thick snow atop the mountains towering above it, and the leaders did nothing to indicate that a thaw in relations is on the way.
Rather than subsiding, the tensions have intensified in recent days because of the failure of troops in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction - which Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had cited as a reason for the war - and because of new contentions that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime was exaggerated.
On the eve of the summit, at a gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia, the German foreign minister berated Blair for "misleading" the world about the Iraqi threat, according to British newspapers.
Chirac had said before the summit that he intended to move past the diplomatic fallout over Iraq, which has affected relations with Britain and the United States. Asked about the tenor of his encounters yesterday with Bush, Chirac was sharp and brief with his answer, telling a reporter: "Don't believe everything you hear.
"My exchanges with President Bush were absolutely positive, in terms of making progress toward solving difficult problems," Chirac said.
He greeted Bush on the portico of the Hotel Royal Evian, and the two men quickly dispensed with small talk and moved on to the other leaders. In contrast, Chirac had greeted his other guests with lingering handshakes, broad smiles and - even with Blair, his European rival and a vocal supporter of the war - a laugh or two.
Annan wants action
Ignoring the rift, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan let the leaders know that summits are valuable only when followed by action. "We are still far" from finding the extra $50 billion a year in aid needed to fulfill the goals set out at a U.N. Millennium Summit in 2000, he said.
"Formidable challenges lie ahead if we are to even come close to meeting the goals," Annan told the leaders of the G-8, which is composed of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia. His meeting with them was closed to reporters, but his remarks were released in a statement.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders jumped on the talk-is-cheap theme, saying that despite "countless promises" of help from G-8 members, 14 million people will die this year from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, malaria and other diseases.
"Each year, G-8 political inaction results in lives lost," the group said in a statement. "Are these annual gatherings simply going to become platforms for good PR designed to protect the commercial interests of the wealthiest nations or are they going to start transforming announcements in real life-saving interventions?"
In addition to the permanent members of the G-8, the summit was attended at Chirac's request by the leaders of India, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia and several African countries.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, one of the leaders invited to Evian, said African countries feel that aid pledges from earlier summits have not been honored.
"We are at the point where we should say the global framework was agreed. ... Now we must be at the stage of implementation," he told BBC Radio.
Yesterday's meetings focused on such issues, with Bush pointing to his $15 billion package dedicated to fighting AIDS in Africa and Chirac promising to seek funding to triple France's commitment to the effort, to about $175 million. Congress approved the AIDS initiative before Bush arrived at the summit.
Chirac had sought to broaden the meeting to focus on the developing nations, steering it away from Bush's primary agenda - fighting terrorism, reducing the threat from Iran and North Korea, and focusing on peace in the Middle East, including the rebuilding of Iraq. Those issues are to be the focus of today's meetings.
A senior official in the Bush administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush will propose a "counterterrorism action group" that would provide training and funding for countries that want to assist in the fight against terrorism but cannot afford it.
The future of Iraq
Bush and Chirac are scheduled to meet one-on-one today, and French officials said the future of Iraq would be discussed but that there were no plans to rehash prewar disagreements. Bush administration officials were particularly incensed at Chirac because he lobbied other countries to oppose U.S. and British war plans, and the French president has not backed off his stance that the war was "illegitimate."
"I can't imagine that they would meet again without discussing the question of Iraq," Chirac spokeswoman Catherine Colonna told reporters yesterday. "But if they discuss it, it won't be to go back over the past - that would not be useful - but to look toward the future."
Blair told reporters that disagreements on the necessity of the war would probably never be reconciled, but he said a decision by the countries to move forward could help energize the faltering economies of the United States and Europe. Likewise, he said, it is vital to take a clear and unanimous position on the need to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"The most important thing, particularly after all the differences there have been over Iraq, is that the international community comes together and gives a very strong statement," Blair said. "It will be the quality of intent that is as important as anything else."
Protest in Switzerland
Outside Evian, a picturesque spa on the shores of Lake Geneva, disagreements went beyond the subtleties of handshakes. In a scene that has become almost a signature of gatherings of world leaders, thousands of protesters clashed with police as they accused the G-8 of exploiting developing countries rather than helping them.
In Lausanne, Switzerland, across Lake Geneva from the site of the summit, demonstrators wearing black masks flung rocks at police, blocked highways and bridges, and set fire to barricades. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber pellets.
Protesters represented a variety of causes, from anti-globalization to environmental protection to relief for Third World countries facing billions of dollars in debt.
China is attending the G-8 summit for the first time, and Chirac and Bush met with President Hu Jintao yesterday in separate meetings.
Bush seemed to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. At a news conference in St. Petersburg, where the leaders had gathered to help Putin celebrate the 300th anniversary of his hometown, Bush said relations were stronger having survived the disagreement over Iraq, in which Putin had sided with France, Germany and Canada.
"We will show the world that friends can disagree, move beyond disagreement and work in a very constructive and important way to maintain the peace," Bush said, with Putin at his side.
"The fundamentals between the United States and Russia turned out to be stronger than the forces and events that tested it," Putin said, with Bush nodding in agreement.
But the source of the most serious disagreement between the United States and Russia was left unresolved. Russia has promised to continue building a nuclear power plant in Iran, which the United States objects to, fearing that it could be used in the production of nuclear weapons.
Bush plans to leave the summit today, a day early, for meetings in the Middle East. His staff said his early departure has nothing to do with the disagreements with his host.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun