World watches for sign of new US approach abroad

After the election, Bush may take a more multilateralist path and pay greater attention to bipartisanship.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visits the White House Monday, he'll be looking for signs of any redirection in how the United States approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and Iran – in the wake of last week's midterm elections.

This barometric reading is the first of several that world leaders will be taking of American leadership. Later this week, President Bush travels to Asia to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam. Then at the end of the month, the president visits Europe, where he attends a NATO summit in Riga, Latvia.

Along the way, leaders from Chinese President Hu Jintao to Russia's Vladimir Putin will be gauging the new state of political affairs in Washington – from Democratic leadership in Congress and a change at the helm of the Pentagon, to the resurgent role of former secretary of State James Baker III.

With Mr. Bush entering the lame-duck period of his presidency in a weaker state than imagined just a week ago, some diplomatic observers believe the moment could constitute one of the most important turning points in his dealings with the world.

"Although not as dramatic, there will be changes in President Bush's approach to international affairs as a result of 11/7 just as there were after 9/11," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs now at George Washington University. "After 9/11 it was essentially 'our way or the highway,' but clearly now the requirement to bring Congress on board for any major foreign-policy initiatives will mean much greater attention to bipartisanship and the concerns of other players in the international community."

Trade deal with Russia

One side effect of the Democrats' rise to majority power in Congress may be resolution of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Negotiations between the US and Russia had dragged on over the summer, but some trade experts believe the political will to strike a deal recently strengthened on both sides – with Bush eager to solicit Russia's help on other matters, including Iran.

In addition, the Russians may have decided a trade deal with the US might be more difficult under the Democrats, these experts say. Perhaps as a result, Bush is now expected to sign the deal for Russia's entry into the WTO next weekend in Hanoi. Bush is also set to stop in Moscow Wednesday on his way to Vietnam.

But Mr. Olmert's White House visit will be the first test of Washington's new diplomatic environment. The Israelis are not so worried that Democrats are less staunch in their friendship than the White House, some specialists say, as they are that their conflict with the Palestinians could get swept up into efforts to address the situation in Iraq.

Coincidentally, Bush meets with Olmert the same day he hosts the Iraq Study Group, the congressionally mandated panel headed by Mr. Baker and former Democratic congressional leader Lee Hamilton. The panel has sparked speculation about expanded regional efforts as one likely option for stabilizing Iraq – and some experts say Israel is worried that ideas may be on the table to entice Iraq's Arab neighbors into helping out.

Noting that the Israeli press is full of conjecture that the panel is "cooking up something big" for the region, Samuel Lewis, former US ambassador to Israel, says, "[Olmert] wants to arrive with proposals of his own to head off anything bad that may be coming."

The "big" idea might be limited to a regional conference that could take a comprehensive approach to the Middle East, Mr. Lewis says. But he adds that even that would not be welcomed by Israel at this point.

Others less inclined to cooperate?

As for American diplomacy writ large, some observers believe that Bush may embark on a more multilateralist path just as the rest of the world is less inclined to cooperate with the Bush White House.

"The Europeans in particular see [the midterm elections] as a referendum on Bush policy, and they're saying, 'OK, the political calculus in the US is changing and in two years it will change even further, so why invest much of our political capital in what is there right now?' " says Karen Donfried, a former State Department official who is now a senior analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

However, she emphasizes that Bush's weakness "shouldn't be overstated," noting that he will be president for two more years – longer than several of his European counterparts will be in office.

Still, she worries that the perception of a weak US president will affect how key partners address important international issues. For example, she says that commitments to the war in Afghanistan could suffer without forceful American leadership.

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