Preoccupied with budget and other domestic issues, the Bush administration has made a faltering start on the world stage during its first six weeks.
That is in part because it faces some intractable problems, in part because it doesn't seem to have its own act together. Few expected Secretary of State Colin Powell, in brief visits to Israel and the West Bank, to be able to achieve any semblance of peace.
But more complicated is Mr. Powell's effort to fashion a new and better-targeted regime of sanctions against Iraq. That has yet to be sold to skeptical leaders in the region, and perhaps even within the administration.
President Bush campaigned for all-out enforcement of sanctions. Secretary Powell was frank to say to reporters that he expected to face charges at home of weakening the embargo. He has suggested also that the Feb. 16 Anglo-American air strike against Iraqi antiaircraft installations enraged officials in the countries he was visiting and made his task more difficult.
He did not say whether he had been consulted on the timing of the air strike, and left open the possibility of divided views within the administration. Mr. Bush, who said at first that the attack was "routine" suppression of hostile fire on American and British planes, later upgraded his motivation to sending Iraq a "clear message" of continuing American engagement.
There also seemed to be confusion about the discovery of Chinese technicians working on Iraqi radar and control sites. At his news conference on Feb. 22, the president said, "We're going to send a message to the Chinese." The next day, at his joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he said the Chinese had promised to "remedy the situation."
Bush referred further questions to his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who said she had nothing to add. That was presumably because she didn't want to be in a position of saying that the president had misspoken. Later a State Department official, on background, explained that the US ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, had delivered a formal protest to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and received only a noncommittal response.
On other issues, the administration has not always spoken with a single voice. On missile defense, the president found recent Russian statements "encouraging." But Powell indicated that the latest Russian proposal was quite thin, without much substance. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised hackles in Moscow and the State Department by calling Russia an "active proliferator," saying the shield was needed for protection against the fruits of that proliferation: deadly missiles in rogue hands.
On the proposal for a European rapid reaction force to respond to Balkan and other European crises, Mr. Rumsfeld, at a Munich strategy conference earlier in February, delivered a sharp warning against abandoning the NATO alliance.
But Bush, after his meeting with Mr. Blair, endorsed the European force concept.
Powell then proceeded to make the endorsement official at a NATO session in Brussels. He also gave a firm commitment that American troops would remain in the Balkans as long as NATO needed them. This was to reassure allies worried about Bush's campaign promise to remove American forces gradually.
All this may be just part of a shakedown cruise of a new administration. Or it may point to some strain among the powerful persons in that administration, starting with Secretaries Powell and Rumsfeld.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society