Why Bush abroad is like Clinton

In foreign affairs, US presidents tend to keep their predecessors' policies once they're in office.

As he travels through Europe on his first major trip abroad as president, George W. Bush has begun dealing with many of the major world issues facing the United States in a manner that is strikingly similar to that of his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Consider the evidence: In recent weeks, Bush officials have announced their intention to pick up where the Clinton administration left off and restart diplomacy with North Korea. The White House has dispatched a special envoy to the Mideast, after initially declaring it would refrain from such personal peacemaking attempts.

And those US peacekeepers in Bosnia, whose deployment Mr. Bush criticized on the campaign trail? Still there, in virtually the same numbers.

This zig back toward the Clinton style may be a reflection of simple experience. Once in office, the Bush team discovered there was a reason its predecessors acted as they did, after all. In the post-World War II era, virtually every administration has gone through the same learning process.

For half a century, arguably one of the most striking features of American foreign policy has been its continuity, no matter which party controls the White House.

"National interests drive foreign policy, and national interests don't change on Jan. 20 every four years," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

This does not mean that Europe does not still view Bush with concern. His unilateralist tone - as when he said the US would pull out of the Kyoto global warming pact because it was best for the American economy - grates on ears used to more internationalist rhetoric from US chief executives.

Still some differences

Major differences remain, chief among them the proper way to address the global warming problem and missile defense.

US allies are still virtually unanimous in opposing the erection of a shield against nuclear weapons, unless Russia agrees to such deployments and they are carried out within a framework of binding treaty commitments.

But a number of recent US acts have given foreign leaders reason to think that the Bush administration may not be the lone cowboy they were beginning to envision.

Re-engagement with North Korea is particularly important in this regard. Buying off the North Korean leadership with aid and entry into the global community would be a far more cost-effective way of defusing its missile program than missile defenses, believe many Asian and European leaders. Restarting talks loses little, potentially gains much, and at the very least bolsters South Korean president Kim Dae Jung.

In the Middle East, Bush has dispatched a personal envoy - CIA director George J. Tenet - to the region in an attempt to prevent further escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence. That's not the personal crusade Clinton undertook to strike a peace deal, but it's still a far step past the administration's initial vows of disengagement.

In the Balkans, Secretary of State Colin Powell last month assured US allies that all that campaign talk about reviewing US commitments around the world did not, perish the thought, mean that the American presence in the Balkans was in question.

Even in dealing with China, the Bush team won kudos for its restrained handling of an actual crisis, the standoff over the crippled Navy surveillance plane and its detained US crew.

"What I see happening across the [foreign policy] spectrum is what so often happens," says Jim Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. "After an initial period, things move back to what is more continuity than change in basic American policies."

But once they're in office...

Simple experience in office may be one reason the Bush administration has stepped back from some of the positions the president took in his campaign and in the early days of power.

Virtually every chief executive of the past 20 years has taken a more moderate approach to China once assuming office, for instance. In the Oval Office, they discover that the realities of US economic ties with China, and the country's irreducible importance to the American strategic position in Asia, dictate a more nuanced policy.

Thus Ronald Reagan never increased arms sales to Taiwan as much as he had promised. Bill Clinton criticized former President George Bush for dealing with Chinese "dictators," and then did so himself.

Nor is the rest of the world a theme park for Americans. US policy in the Balkans has been a messy compromise of engagement and distance ever since the region exploded in the late years of the first Bush administration. As with China, a succession of presidents have criticized their predecessors and then operated from the same basic blueprint.

Administration to administration, differences in foreign policy tend to be concentrated on symbolic issues that have little bearing on direct US interests, says Mr. Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Such actions "mobilize a president's supporters and make them feel that foreign policy represents them," says Mead.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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