Full foreign agenda a stretch for Bush White House?

As Bush returns from Europe, it's clear diplomacy is dominating his presidency.

It was a full trip to Europe. Perhaps too full.

What may be most remarkable about President Bush's six-day swing through Germany, Russia, France, and Italy is the degree to which other foreign-policy issues not directly related to the trip came up.

At each stop, Mr. Bush was unable to escape burning international issues beyond his immediate European agenda – the near-war between India and Pakistan, for instance, and next steps in the Palestinian–Israeli dispute. Add to that his discussions about the spread of weapons of mass destruction and his effort to bring Russia into the West – the centerpiece of this trip – and it's clear this is turning into a presidency dominated by foreign affairs, even beyond the war on terror.

"I think he has a very full foreign-policy plate," says Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the House foreign relations committee. Considering the number of hot spots around the world requiring the president's attention, he says the administration's ability to effectively handle it all is "being stretched."

Yesterday, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns would head to the Middle East to discuss "a political way forward." He'll be followed by CIA director George Tenet, who will go this week to discuss security issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, doesn't share Mr. Hamilton's concern that the White House is perhaps overwhelmed with urgent foreign policy matters.

He says the level of diplomatic engagement is an indication of how urgent a matter is, and points to the fact that, in the Mid-East, it's the assistant secretary of state – not Mr. Powell – who is travelling.

"I think sometimes the choice of the level of involvement has important policy implications, particularly if you don't think there's going to be a resolution anytime soon. You may not want to approach it at the highest level," says Mr. Perle.

Indeed, Powell, yesterday, said that although the administration still plans to participate in a regional summit on the Arab–Israeli problem this summer, "we are not at this point prepared to table an American plan with specific deadlines" for a peace settlement.

Meanwhile, leaders of NATO and Russia expressed concern yesterday over the crisis between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and urged both South Asian countries to take urgent steps to draw back from the brink of war.

Whether these crises, plus everything else on the president's overflowing foreign policy agenda, will divert him from domestic issues is an open question. Hamilton is concerned that the formidable international work load has made it "very difficult" for the president to stay focused on the war on terrorism. At the same time, he says, "it's hard for him to identify domestic issues now. He tried a few weeks ago to [play up] education, but he can't keep focused on it because the foreign policy questions have so intruded."

Charles Jones, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, says there is a certain "automatic pilot" to the domestic side, and points to the strong team the president has to handle his agenda.

"I think it can be balanced," says Mr. Jones, of Bush's ability to keep the international and domestic balls in the air. "But it really depends greatly on whether we were correct ... when he built his cabinet, that these are pretty effective operators."

Certainly, the president himself has travelled light years in his diplomatic skills, say analysts, building a solid friendship with Putin and calling on world leaders – on the phone and in person – regularly.

But he still has his down-to-earth moments – as when Russian TV captured him spitting his chewing gum into his hand just before greeting Putin at last week's summit.

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