VIENNA -- President Bush, eager to counter the perceived threats of Iran and North Korea, instead found himself yesterday passionately defending the United States against suggestions that it threatens world security with its own foreign policies.
``That's absurd," Bush said at a news conference yesterday in historic Hofburg Palace, where European reporters pressed the president about declining European public opinion toward the United States.
``We'll defend ourselves, but at the same time we're actively working with our partners to spread peace and democracy," Bush said.
During a three-day tour of Europe, the president is intent on encouraging European allies to maintain a united front in a standoff with Iran over its pursuit of nuclear technology and to make good on a continental commitment to pay for the rebuilding of war-torn Iraq.
Though he received the European leaders' support on Iran, Bush expressed frustration with Tehran's slow reaction to an offer of incentives and negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced yesterday that Iran would not respond to the offer until Aug. 22.
``It seems like an awful long time for a reasonable answer," Bush said. ``It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal. I said weeks, not months."
But in private meetings, some European leaders appeared as interested in pressing the American president on the closing of the US-run detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other issues that call into question the American commitment to human rights. Bush raised the issue on his own and pledged again that he will eventually close the camp.
``I'd like to end Guantanamo. I'd like it to be over with," Bush said.
With about 400 detainees still there, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Yemen, the president said he is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on how many will be tried.
``One of the things we will do is we'll send people back to their home countries. . . . 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," Bush said.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel of Austria, the current president of the 25-nation European Union, said Bush gave clear indications that the United States will resolve the Guantanamo issue as well as guarantee the rights of people suspected of terrorism in other countries -- a sensitive issue in Europe since reports that the United States has operated secret prisons on the continent.
``We are calling for the closure of Guantanamo," Schuessel said. ``But our discussion today went far beyond the closing of Guantanamo. . . . And we got clear, clear signals and a commitment from the American side -- no torture, no extraordinary or extra territorial positions to deal with the terrorists. "
Bush's encounter with the European news media wasn't as friendly, as he was pressured to explain the impact of his policies.
``You might be aware that in Europe the image of America is still falling," said Raimund Loew, Washington bureau chief for the Austrian Broadcasting Corp., who asked Bush why he had failed to win the ``hearts and minds" of Europeans.
``I thought it was absurd for people to think that we're more dangerous than Iran," Bush said .
``I'll try my best to explain to the Europeans that, on the one hand, we're tough when it comes to the war on terror," Bush said. ``On the other hand, we'll help feed the hungry. I will do my best to explain our foreign policy. On the one hand, it's tough when it needs to be. On the other hand, it's compassionate."
In Vienna, a few hundred students chanted ``Bush, go home" at a train station rally. Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq and has protested outside the president's ranch in Texas, led the student protesters in Vienna.
In his meeting, Bush found ready support for a demand that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium, which many believe is leading to development of nuclear weaponry. Bush said Iran is taking too long to respond.
Schuessel agreed, saying: ``We have come to a crossroad on the Iranian nuclear issue. . . . It's better to agree as soon as possible. The time is limited, and I think we should not play with time."