Bush's foreign-policy focus closer to home

Visits to Mexico, Canada, reflect shift in emphasis, with free trade a top priority.

With a visit this week from the Canadian prime minister and a trip to Mexico planned for Feb. 16, President Bush has begun what he calls a new foreign-policy emphasis on the Western Hemisphere.

In doing so, Mr. Bush is trying to start his White House tenure with an agenda that plays to his strengths - including his friendship with Mexico's President Vicente Fox.

Yet in taking on the Western Hemisphere, Bush will face difficult issues that have been simmering for years, including the expansion of free-trade agreements, drug trafficking in Colombia, and troubling political developments in Venezuela.

Although President Clinton made improvements in some of these areas, he was criticized for not having a comprehensive regional policy and lacking long-term focus. Analysts say Bush will have a hard time reversing that trend.

"I expect the Bush administration to continue the Clinton policy of focusing on trade rather than dealing with issues like poverty and social justice," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs here.

After meeting this week with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Bush was optimistic he could gain ground in free trade, a contentious topic in the United States.

"I want the people of my country to understand that a foreign-policy priority of my administration will be this hemisphere," Bush said. "And we have great opportunities in this hemisphere to spread prosperity throughout."

South of the border

Bush's first test could come during the visit to Mexico. Although Bush will surely applaud the democratic election of Mr. Fox, which ended decades of one-party rule in Mexico, he will also have to confront some subtle disagreements between the US and its southern neighbor.

For one, Fox has proposed opening the 2,000-mile border for immigration and labor, which is troubling to many in the US. Also, Mexico is urging Washington to change its policy of holding an annual congressional review of Mexico's drug policy, which has been a steady source of embarrassment. Instead, Mexican officials have said, the US should work with them as an equal partner on drug issues, to stem both the supply and demand.

After his trip to Mexico, Bush is expected to meet in Washington with the president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Brazil is considered to be the region's linchpin, yet it has had differences with the US on key topics, including how to stop the regional cocaine trade.

But the meeting between Mr. Cardoso and Bush will probably focus on something different: the April 20 Summit of the Americas, to be held in Quebec City, Canada.

At the summit, Bush is expected to try to cement a long-term US goal of creating free trade within the hemisphere, all the way from Antarctica to Alaska. If successful, Bush would continue the path laid by his father, who started negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

To help build a broader free-trade agreement, the Bush administration wants first to reestablish fast-track trade negotiating authority. That would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements and get quick authorization from Congress - without legislators changing the agreement.

"President Bush has emphasized that to set a new course for this hemisphere, he needs to hold out the prospect in Quebec City that new trade-promotion authority is on its way," said Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative, during his Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing.

Drug trafficking

Beyond trade issues, Bush will also have to deal with Colombia, where the US sent $1.3 billion in aid to help stop drug traffickers. The plan has been criticized because of its heavy military emphasis - it pays for combat helicopters, among other things - and some US lawmakers are concerned that Washington will get drawn into a protracted conflict between the Colombian government and the rebels who control the cocaine trade.

If "Plan Colombia," as it is called, does not work relatively quickly, congressional support for it could dissolve.

Although Bush has yet to specify what he will do with Colombia, there is some speculation that the administration would step up pressure on the guerrillas by giving more aid.

"Perhaps the likelihood of going down the road toward more military involvement is greater under the new administration," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington.

In a recent television interview, however, Secretary of State Colin Powell insisted that US troops would not be drawn in beyond an "advisory role."

The Colombia issue is tied to another likely concern of the Bush administration: Venezuela, which has been accused of maintaining contacts with the Colombian rebels and undermining the peace efforts there.

The US has been watching Venezuela, a major oil supplier, with a cautious eye since President Hugo Chavez was elected two years ago.

Mr. Chavez has met with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, strengthened his country's ties with Cuba, and courted Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. He has also refused permission for US surveillance planes to fly over Venezuela.

The Bush administration may seek some type of public condemnation of antidemocratic developments there, analysts say. But it is unlikely to push the issue much further, especially when so much oil is involved.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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