NEW YORK — PRESIDENT Bush may be using foreign affairs to put some steel into his reelection campaign.
The newly "activist" president has decided to help make the life of United Nations peacekeepers easier, to use United States troops for more humanitarian efforts, to make it more difficult for countries to buy supplies for nuclear weapons, and to cloak US foreign assistance in corporate clothing.
The president's moves, only six weeks before election day, were announced Sept. 21 at the United Nations. Much of what the president said, one Western diplomat suggests, was "pitched as much to domestic America as to the international community."
For example, the president reversed his earlier opposition to foreign aid that requires recipients to use US funds to buy goods and services from US businesses. A senior administration official said this would create 40,000 new jobs.
The president's peacekeeping proposals surprised many diplomats, foreign-affairs specialists, and members of Congress. In fact, until Sept. 21, many diplomats thought President Bush was only lukewarm about Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's peace agenda, which is designed to strengthen the UN's ability to prevent, contain, and resolve conflict around the globe. "Now, he has hijacked the UN agenda for peace," a diplomat says.
Bush, however, did not commit any new US funding and the administration continues to hold off paying $282 million in past UN dues until the institution becomes more efficient. Bush also stopped short of promising that US ground troops would help future peacekeeping efforts.
Keeping US troops out of hot spots may be a good idea. "Would America be having an overwhelming role? If so, I am not sure that that is going to be necessarily welcome or accepted without a great deal of trepidation or fear, and legitimately so," says Kevin Cahill, president of the Center for International Health and Cooperation.
Another expert notes that it might be best if the US left ground-troop duties to smaller countries like Ireland. "Our presence anywhere is politically loaded," points out Greg Weaver, a senior analyst at the SAIC Corp., a think tank.
IF US troops are used in peacekeeping activities, they will be better trained. Bush says he has directed Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney to place new emphasis on the development of peacekeeping skills in military units.
The president also proposed that multinational peacekeeping units train together. He offered US facilities - specifically the soon-to-be closed Fort Dix, N.J. - as possible training sites. The joint training was welcomed by some foreign countries.
"In peacekeeping the idea is not to kill the enemy, which all soldiers are trained for, but to protect something," says Lt. Col. Juhani Loikkanen, a Finnish UN military adviser.
Colonel Loikkanen says Ft. Bragg, N.C., gave a course this spring for military observers. "I understand there is an effort to make it on a regular basis," Loikkanen says.
Bush also urged development of an adequate support staff for UN peacekeeping planning, crisis management, and other central war-room-type activities.
"There is no policy-planning capability in the UN at the moment," says Jarat Chopra, a Brown University peacekeeping expert.
In other remarks, Bush criticized US foreign-assistance programs as a "handout" to poor nations that result in dependency and said that in the future more US aid would be harnessed to the task of spurring market reforms abroad.
IN his address Bush also called for a $1 billion "growth fund" to pay for grants and credits to US businesses to provide the expertise, goods, and services needed by governments that have embarked on economic restructuring programs.
Bush said the US Agency for International Development should be "fundamentally and radically overhauled," but he promised that humanitarian aid to nations like Somalia would be continued.
Several experts welcomed Bush's call for an overhaul of the $14 billion US foreign-aid program. But they note that in recent years Bush has opposed congressional efforts to bring about just such reforms on the grounds that Democratic-sponsored bills would restrict his ability to run foreign policy.
"He's about three years late waking up to the need," says a skeptical Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin. "Speeches don't change anything. Budgets do."
Says a leading US expert on foreign aid: "If Bush thought aid was creating dependency all these years, why didn't he undertake these reforms a decade ago? On one hand he's disowning his own legacy, and on the other hand he's picking up a Democratic initiative and trying to claim it as his own."