A push for cooperation - on American terms

With a packed agenda of international trips, Bush sets out to mend fences and address Latin American concerns.

That President Bush intends to make diplomatic bridge- building a priority of his second term can be seen in his heavy travel schedule over the coming weeks.

But it won't be bridge-building at the expense of what the president perceives as US interests. With critical elections on the horizon in Iraq, the next two months will be about cultivating as much international good will and cooperation as possible - without compromising Mr. Bush's core beliefs.

Friday the president flies to Santiago, Chile, for a three-day trip that includes a summit with Asian and Pacific leaders, a large number of bilateral meetings, a state visit to Chile, and a stop for lunch in Colombia Monday. Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel from Santiago to the Middle East to meet with Israelis and Palestinians to try to take advantage of the window opened by Yasser Arafat's death.

Later this month the president goes to Canada, before a postinauguration trip to Europe for a NATO summit and a visit to Britain. Other European stops might still be added.

The Chile state visit is particularly instructive. Like many of the countries Bush will visit or whose leaders he will meet, Chile opposed the war in Iraq and failed to support the US position in the United Nations Security Council in 2003. But since then both sides have made an effort to overcome that split.

The US has approved a free-trade agreement with Chile, while Chile answered a US request to send peace-keeping troops to troubled Haiti. It also shuffled its diplomatic team at the UN to include an ambassador who is a friend of National Security Adviser and Secretary of State nominee Condoleezza Rice.

That kind of mutual accommodation may serve as an example as Bush approaches the more onerous task of repairing relations with estranged European partners, including Germany, Spain, and France. Still, no one expects Bush, convinced of a mandate to forge ahead even in ways that are unpopular abroad, to pull in America's sails.

"The president would like to mend as many fences as possible, but not at just any cost," says David Lampton, an Asia and foreign-policy expert at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "I don't see any inclination to change the underlying policies that are giving rise to the disquiet."

An example is North Korea's nuclear-arms program. White House officials discussing Bush's trip to the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) say the US will stick to demands for resumption of the six-party talks that have involved the US, China, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea. In a briefing this week the officials played down growing signs of dissatisfaction with the pace and limited scope of those talks, especially from China and South Korea, saying, "We don't see the split."

Mr. Lampton says he sees no indication that the US will now show "any more flexibility with North Korea than we have in the past" - even though that is what some of the six-party partners are looking for. And he says that what is seen as US rigidity is causing problems for some governments in nations where US policies are not popular.

"Governments in our allied countries are facing populations that are not very supportive" of US policies generally or specifically in regard to North Korea, says Lampton, who just returned from a visit to South Korea. "Governments are only going to get out so far ahead of their own populations."

The South America component of Bush's trip will allow the president to refocus on a region that he had said early in his first term would be a priority, but which fell off the White House radar after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

By making a stop in Cartagena, Colombia, for lunch with President Alvaro Uribe, Bush is recognizing the efforts of a leader who successfully recast in terms of terrorism - a word bound to get the attention of the Bush administration - the stiff challenge his country faces internally from Latin America's last significant guerrilla groups.

Noting how Mr. Uribe has focused on the connection between "drugs and terrorism," one White House official says the Colombian leader "has linked the two, [and it's] a message we hope will resonate through the region."

Still, Latin America watchers are unsure that a second Bush administration intent on addressing the Middle East will pay significantly more attention to the south.

"In addition to the president's visit, we've had [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld in Ecuador for a regional defense ministers' meeting, and Powell and [Homeland Security Secretary Tom] Ridge in Mexico right before that, so that does suggest some diplomatic current towards Latin America," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

But the real test of whether the US truly plans to fortify relations with Latin America will take place over coming months as key issues are addressed, including:

The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). It's already signed, but Congress must ratify it. "If it does pass, it may only be by a half-dozen votes," says Mr. Hakim. "Bush would have to spend some of the political capital he's talked about if he wants this."

Plan Colombia. Will the administration press to continue pouring money into Colombia to fight the drugs-guerrilla nexus? Bush's stop in Colombia would suggest so.

Andean Free Trade Agreement. The Bush administration this year initiated discussions with Colombia on a free-trade agreement to include Peru and Ecuador.

Haiti. The hemisphere's poorest country continues to be wracked by political turmoil and violence that show no signs of abating on their own, but the US has tended to get involved reluctantly and only at moments of deep crisis.

Regional migration. While Mexico remains the major focus for the US on immigration, Central America and the Andean countries are also important contributors to the northward flow of migrants.

"How this agenda is addressed will tell us if these latest forays are just a diplomatic flurry," says Hakim, "or if we really are going to see more attention to the region."

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