Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
WASHINGTON ó Presidential campaigns are a notoriously bad environment for debating how America will approach the world. During the cold war, every candidate sought to prove he would be tough on the Communists, and his opponent a wimp. In this murkier age of global markets, globe-trotting terrorists, disintegrating superpowers and distended peacekeeping missions, George W. Bush made realists happy by assuring them he would protect America's "national interests," while assuring allies that America would stop lecturing and conduct a "more humble foreign policy."
No one was quite certain what it all meant.
But in the past few weeks, Mr. Bush has begun defining his terms, setting his priorities ó and in the case of Iraq, giving notice that he may be new to this, but he doesn't plan to show it.
Last week, Mr. Bush set a broad new direction for America's military, told reservists that he would bring a halt to the "overdeployments" of troops around the world, and talked about gas exploration and new immigration policy with President Vincente Fox in Mexico. Most dramatically, he approved an air raid on radar control facilities near Baghdad that he hopes will chasten Saddam Hussein on the eve of Gen. Colin L. Powell's first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. The raid underscored Mr. Bush's first foreign policy objective: to take command of events overseas, while being far more selective than the Clinton administration about which thickets to enter. That is more an inclination than a strategy, and there are plenty of rough edges.
So far, for example, Mr. Bush's approach to Russia has been somewhat less than humble. In the past few days Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declared that Moscow's role as an "active proliferator" of missile technology helped propel the White House toward developing a national missile defense ó a plan the Russians and Chinese detest. Then there is Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who has bluntly declared that the Clinton administration's loans to Russia were "crazy" and has told the Kremlin to pay off the old Soviet Union's debts and forget about new aid until it cleans up rampant corruption.
Mr. O'Neill also says countries like Russia that mismanage their currencies and economies are on their own, and should expect no cash from Washington. On the other hand, he says, Japan will no longer get Clinton-like lectures about how to reverse its decade-long economic decline.
This may not add up to a global vision. But it sure sends a message: don't expect us to leave home as often, and don't expect us to whip out our American Express card when we do. It's not isolationist ó but it's far less activist than the let's-have-a- summit approach of Bill Clinton. (Iraq, of course, is a special case.)
One of Mr. Bush's senior foreign policy aides put it this way: "The point Bush makes to us in meeting after meeting is that while the U.S. is indeed very powerful and influential, if we are using that power everywhere, we will either cause a backlash or not prove very effective." It is a sentiment Mr. Bush himself expressed last month, just before the inauguration, while touring his ranch in Crawford, Tex., with two reporters. "I worry about our ugly-American problem," he said.
BUT can he trust that Japan will change the way it runs its economy, or persuade the Arabs and Israelis to talk rather than shoot, without keeping the United States in the prescription-writing business?
"You would be misreading the new administration to think that there is an aggregate decision to ratchet down," said Philip D. Zelikow, the director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and a longtime friend and associate of Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's national security adviser. "The two words they use the most often are discipline and strategy. It comes out of a sense that the Clinton people were too undisciplined, and they let events drive them."
Mr. Bush's team, he argued, is "trying hard to recover choice." That is why this president has no intention of playing the middle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why he abhors tying up the military in "nation-building," which in his view hurts readiness for emergencies.
All this fits nicely into Mr. Bush's preference for pragmatism over ideology. Like his father, he tends to attack problems through personal relationships ó which is what the ranch diplomacy with Mr. Fox was all about. Perhaps this was Mr. Bush's idea of humility: he talked about a "North American energy policy" rather than one the United States presumes to dominate, and he appeared to be taking seriously proposals for a guest worker program that sends shivers up the backs of some conservatives in his own party.
The flip side of the Bush team's predilection for the personal is a lack of much real enthusiasm for the multilateral institutions that Mr. Clinton saw as the vital wiring of a globalized world.
In his last speech to the United Nations, Mr. Clinton talked about promoting a global rapid-reaction force that, with American help, could intervene inside national borders before civil war turned to genocide. Don't hold your breath for Mr. Bush to repeat those words. As a close military adviser to Vice President Cheney notes, "There's a real sense in this White House that the Haitis and Rwandas and Kosovos of the world are not materially better off after our interventions than they would have been without them."
IF that's the analysis, though, Mr. Bush's few weeks in the Oval Office have already taught him to speak with a lot more subtlety than he did on the campaign trail.
For example, there he was last week at NATO's Atlantic headquarters in Norfolk, Va., repeating that he would consult, consult and consult some more before doing anything precipitous about pulling troops out of the Balkans. Similarly, in an exchange of letters with President Jiang Zemin of China last week, he said Beijing had nothing to fear from an American missile defense. He says he is certain he will convince the Chinese, over time, that his plan is not aimed at them.
The fear in Europe and Asia, of course, is that the talk of consultation is just for show ó that Mr. Bush wants to put a multinational patina on views he's already arrived at.
"That's not the case," a senior adviser argues. "I am certain that the consultations will affect our plans in a variety of areas."
Of course, the real test of America's new management won't come until grand pronouncements confront some global reality. Iraq is just a start. The first time a Rwanda-like carnage unfolds on CNN, or a Russia-like financial crisis threatens to take out the Nasdaq, the conversations about "overdeployment" and "crazy" financial interventions will get truly interesting. That's also when the president who has been overseas three times in his adult life gets his first real tour of the world.