In Bush II, interests trump friendships

President is downplaying personal ties with foreign leaders, instead focusing on strategic interests to US.

When Tony Blair stood with President Bush at the White House recently, the British prime minister looked uncharacteristically grim and distracted.

Maybe it was that, despite a jelling accord on poor-country debt relief, Mr. Blair was not getting a lot of what he'd hoped for from his friend. Or maybe he was preoccupied with Europe's political crisis over a failed constitutional process and with what he's going to do about it as the European Union's incoming president.

Whatever the reason, the scene stood as a metaphor for how a Bush White House that early on placed a high level of importance on the president's personal friendships with foreign leaders is now downplaying the role of leader-to-leader chemistry.

In its place is a greater emphasis on a foreign policy based more squarely on national interests and a cooler, depersonalized assessment of what countries can be the most helpful. The criterion is less "who we like" and more "who has interests that match ours."

In this new era, there is less talk of a best "amigo" like Mexico's Vicente Fox, no more rhapsody on seeing into the soul of Russia's Vladimir Putin. Blair remains a friend - though perhaps a disappointed and preoccupied one - because despite differences, the United States and Britain continue to see in largely the same way how democratization and a free-market economy serve the world's and thus their interests.

And in this climate, the US and France have a renewed appreciation for working with each other - not because of any sudden why-didn't-we-feel-this-before warmth between Mr. Bush and President Jacques Chirac, but because both have overriding interests in doing so.

"At the end of the day, it's never so much friendships as national interests that matter," says Andrew Bacevich, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University.

The fall of the Bush-Fox friendship within the first year of Bush's presidency illustrates that point.

"Bush took office in a peaceful world with the global economy at the top of the agenda, and Mexico and the new president's friend from across the Texas border fit right into that context," says Mr. Bacevich. "But along comes 9/11, security displaces economics as the priority and driving national interest ... and suddenly the focus on Fox as [Bush's] closest and dearest friend goes by the board."

The early Bush emphasis on personal friendships is not unusual among recent presidents - in part because recent White House occupants have been governors with a paucity of foreign-policy experience.

But the reliance on friendship has not always stood the test of interests, analysts say.

"Like many presidents, Bush has sometimes tended to overpersonalize relationships, but that has sometimes led to disappointment," says Max Boot, a foreign-policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Pointing to US-Russia relations, for example, he says, "[Bush] assumed Putin would respond to his emphasis on democracy and freedom, but it hasn't worked out that way - and as a result the relations have gotten cooler."

For some observers, friendship is a two-way street, and they say that America's current lack of friends in the world should be considered in the context of the Bush administration's disregard for other viewpoints, especially over the Iraq war.

"Blair took a giant risk in supporting President Bush on war in Iraq because first, he held some of the same views, but also because he thought that by sticking by the US there would be some kind of quid pro quo," says Bacevich of Boston University. He cites US stalling on a pet Blair issue - global warming - differences on debt relief, and timid action on the Middle East peace process. "I can't see that he's gotten that quid pro quo," he says.

In particular, Blair had hoped to forge an accord on global warming by the time of next month's G-8 summit in Scotland, but most observers agree that remains out of reach.

Even considering that, Mr. Boot disagrees. He notes that Bush did heed Blair by going for a second prewar UN resolution on Iraq, by releasing British prisoners from the Guantánamo facility for suspected terrorists, and most recently by compromising on African debt relief. "I'd say Bush has made an effort to accommodate Tony Blair," he says.

The real reason for cooler appearances between Bush and Blair may lie more with Blair and his own shifting interests, others say.

"I didn't make too much of the lack of hugging between the two," says Geoffrey Kemp, a foreign-policy expert at the Nixon Center in Washington. He suspects the British leader's coolness was more a reflection of his preoccupation with domestic and European issues. "I think he may also have taken note of a shift in burden-sharing on foreign policy from the White House to the State Department under Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice," he adds.

In any case, Mr. Kemp says he isn't so sure that the era of "chemistry" is over. Pointing to the brouhaha that resulted from Bush publicly taking the hand of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah during his recent visit to the president's Texas ranch, Kemp says, "For every Fox, there is a Crown Prince Abdullah."

What appears to have changed is the resurgent focus on national interests, as well a pragmatic return to a handful of countries that can help further those interests. Perhaps the best evidence of such pragmatism is a renewed White House interest in working with France. Bush has praised its assistance in promoting a democratic Lebanon free from Syrian dominance, and other US officials speak highly of French cooperation on Ukraine and counterterror issues.

As one US policy analyst who works with French military officials on security issues puts it, "Their attitude is, 'You hate us, we hate you, now what can we work on together?' "

For Kemp, it's a clear case of mutual interests trumping personal animosities. "Both Bush and Chirac realize that to continue a very public battle between the Élysée Palace and the White House is in no one's interest," he says.

John Hulsman, an expert in transatlantic relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, sees another explanation: While the US needs cooperation from powers that can make a difference in Iraq, the French are responding to the setback that Europe has endured to its dreams of power through European unity.

"Having lost the battle to make Europe a counterweight to the US," Mr. Hulsman says, "France has turned back to working with the US as the best way over the immediate term to exercise its global ambitions."

What the current return to traditional allies tells some analysts is that while any president may try cultivating new friends, the nation's foreign-policy interests don't change all that quickly.

"To tell the foreign-policy story in terms of [presidential] friendships gives the appearance of things changing, when substantially they don't change that much because interests don't change that much," says Bacevich. "If you look at foreign policy and put presidential friendships on the sidelines, you see a lot more continuity in relations than discontinuity."

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