For a president who was supposed to be resolute and unmovable when it came to his pursuit of foreign policy, George W. Bush has proved to be surprisingly flexible not only in the immediate aftermath of Sept 11, but also as new situations continue to crop up.
The reason is simple: Mr. Bush has decided that the battle against terrorism is the raison d'être of his administration. That means that a whole host of issues such as perennially tenuous relations with Iran and the amount earmarked for foreign aid are handled in a manner thought to best promote success in that defining cause.
With Secretary of State Colin Powell set to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tomorrow in a region threatening to spin out of control, it might seem at first glance that the Middle East has overtaken the war on terrorism as the Bush administration's focus.
But the unexpected evolution over the past week in the US approach to the Middle East including Mr. Powell's call on Mr. Arafat in his bombed-out redoubt is a prime example of how something Bush was never anxious to jump into has now been embraced. Had this not been done, the Arab cooperation that the Bush administration needs to vanquish the Al Qaeda terrorist network and which it would like to count on to take on Iraq's Saddam Hussein would likely crumble.
"Without the support of Arab countries, [the president] is not going to be able to do battle with Al Qaeda, because their participation is necessary if you're going to cut off terrorism's finances or close the schools that teach enmity towards the West and what we stand for," says Lawrence Korb, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "[Bush] did not want to get involved with the Middle East, but he is doing it because he recognizes the impact it has on his ability to wage war on terrorism."
In other words, the American president who saw the world in black and white is adding more nuanced and ambiguous hues to his vision. Other examples of a willingness to jettison positions to further the central cause include Bush's recent decision to boost foreign aid by billions of dollars a year. Add to that a readiness in Afghanistan to get into the kinds of "soft" peace-promoting activities it at first eschewed, and signs that the administration is open to dialogue with some of the world's "evildoers."
Just this week, Powell said that the US is communicating "through intermediaries" to Iran one of three countries making up a Bush-proclaimed "axis of evil" to impress upon the Iranians the importance of damping down mounting violence on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Iran has influence with Hizbullah, an extremist Islamic group operating there that has stepped up cross-border attacks on Israel since its incursion into Palestinian territories.
The administration is also talking about eventually sending monitors to referee a truce between the Israelis and Palestinians. Not only that, but it is undertaking activities in Afghanistan which, if not exactly the much-mocked nation-building approach of the Clinton years, comes pretty close.
"Afghanistan is a departure. The US is doing some of the things Bush initially held back from," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that is generally supportive of the Bush administration.
"No one would have predicted this, [because Bush] was a realist," adds Thomas Henriksen, a foreign-policy expert at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif. "Part of it is because of the war on terrorism, and part is because if you want to work these big issues, you have to work sometimes the small issues, too."
One of those "small issues" might be foreign aid. But the size of the Bush administration's increase $10 billion over the next four years suggests how broadly the president's new thinking is reaching.
"This is a big change," says Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the elder President Bush and remains close to the current White House. "Ten billion dollars came out of an administration that thinks foreign aid is a waste of time," but also a White House that is appreciating the link between development issues and terrorism, he says. "The president himself changed his demeanor."
More clues as to just how pragmatic Bush has become as he pursues the fight against terrorism should see the light of day in coming weeks, when the administration publishes the annual National Security Strategy. It will actually be the first for Bush.
The "evolution" that ensued once Bush chose what the Heritage's Mr. Phillips calls the "crowning principle and defining goal of [his] foreign policy" is likely to continue. Citing one example, Phillips says, "You have to be multilateral in something like the war on terrorism if for no other reason than that [Osama] bin Laden's organization operates in more than 70 countries."
As Hoover's Mr. Henriksen says, "Before, [this administration] let the smaller chips fall in where they might. [But] the world is a little more complex, and there are more pieces to that puzzle than initially met their eye."