The Magazine

Bush's Fab Five

The president's favorite foreign leaders.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By FRED BARNES
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PRESIDENT BUSH, en route to last weekend's G8 summit in Russia, paused for a day in what used to be Communist East Germany, where he learned from German chancellor Angela Merkel the proper way to carve a roasted boar.

Earlier in the day she and Bush had sat in front of a fireplace in the town hall of Stralsund, Merkel's hometown, and chatted. "It's a little warm for a fire," Bush noted, though there was no fire going in the fireplace. They conferred privately past the scheduled time for their joint press conference. At the press event, the president referred to Merkel as "Angela." He said: "We found that there is a lot that we agree on."

Of course, there is. Bush knew this from her visit to Washington last January, shortly after she had become head of a new Christian Democrat-led government in Germany. Following talks at the White House, Merkel predicted their meeting "will open up, also, a new chapter, as I hope, in our relationship"--the one between Germany and the United States. And it did.

Merkel is one of Bush's favorite foreign leaders. From discussions with administration officials and watching the president, I've come up with a list of the leaders Bush gets along with best. There are five of them. Besides Merkel, they are the prime ministers of Australia (John Howard), Japan (Junichiro Koizumi), Denmark (Anders Fogh Rasmussen), and Great Britain (Tony Blair). The new conservative prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, is a potential Bush favorite.

The president was close to at least three foreign leaders now out of office. Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, who claimed to be Bush's best friend in Europe, was ousted as prime minister in a recent election. José María Aznar of Spain stepped down after two terms. Ariel Sharon was a cabinet minister when Bush met him on a visit to Israel in 1998, and struck up a friendship that continued after Sharon became prime minister. He suffered a massive stroke earlier this year.

Two of Bush's least favorite foreign leaders have recently lost their jobs: Merkel's predecessor in Germany, Gerhard Schröder, and Prime Minister Paul Martin of Canada. And at the G8 summit he encountered two with whom he has a difficult relationship: President Jacques Chirac of France and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Bush is drawn to iconoclastic, plainspoken leaders who don't reflexively follow the party line in their countries. Blair, for example, is a liberal hawk who agrees with the president on Iraq, while most of his Labour party brethren don't. Rasmussen is in a somewhat similar situation. Koizumi is a reformer who surprisingly took on Japan's inefficient postal savings system and won.

The president's favorites don't have to be conservatives. Blair dislikes American economic policy. Merkel has urged that Guantánamo prison be closed. Rasmussen has worried aloud about abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and possible murders at Haditha in Iraq. But, an aide says, "the president is looking for people who see the world as he sees it." That means, at a minimum, they support his post-invasion policy in Iraq and regard the spread of democracy as important.

Certainly Merkel does. She backs Bush on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. In Washington, she denounced as "totally unacceptable" what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has said about wiping out Israel and doubting the Holocaust. "We will certainly not be intimidated by a country such as Iran."

As chancellor, Merkel took as her first major initiative the repairing of relations with the Unites States. She has largely succeeded. Bush was especially receptive to her overtures after his poor relationship with Schröder. He not only opposed Bush on Iraq, but he won reelection in 2002 by emphasizing his differences with the president and his policies.

Given Blair's ideological kinship and chumminess with President Clinton, he and the more conservative, less glib Bush were not expected to become fast friends. But they have. As British prime minister, Blair knew his most important job was preserving the so-called special relationship with America. And he also sees himself as a kind of ambassador between the United States and Europe.

For his part, Bush likes leaders who keep their word. No surprise there. "You don't make promises idly," the aide says. Bush found Blair to be such a person. And Blair, it turned out, had the same concern. As much as he liked Clinton, Blair never knew if Clinton would follow through on anything. With Bush, he knows. So while the Bush-Blair relationship isn't as warm as Blair's was with Clinton, it is based on trust and, of course, a shared view of England and America's role in the world, particularly in Iraq and fighting terrorism.