Muzzling unilateral instinct with multilateral charm

The Bush administration is now at a critical divide in the conduct of its foreign policy.

The issue is whether its unilateral instincts will be tempered by its multilateral impulses - whether, in fact, it will go it alone in the world, or go it with friends.

Iraq, the foremost item on the Bush White House's foreign-policy agenda, is a good example of the dilemma confronting the president. Egged on by his advisers at the Pentagon, President Bush has shown little reluctance to take on Iraq alone, if need be. As the commander in chief of the world's most powerful military machine, he is confident that the United States could disarm Iraq and neutralize Saddam Hussein in a campaign that his generals estimate would take no longer than five months.

Yet if it comes to war, he wants to "lead a coalition" against Iraq, made up of nations whose military contribution would be marginal but whose political support he considers desirable. And at the urging of his advisers at the State Department, and in the face of polls suggesting most Americans would welcome it, he has negotiated for long weeks to get a United Nations Security Council vote of cover for his campaign against Saddam Hussein.

Ironically, it is hard-line right-wing elements of Mr. Bush's own Republican Party that have been most vociferous in their criticism of the UN over the years. But Bush's father served as ambassador to the UN before he became president, and as president during the Gulf War went to great lengths to secure UN support and then marshal an impressive array of coalition partners to confront Mr. Hussein. These are facts of history that are probably not lost on Bush as he listens to his advisers advocate the merits of unilateral action versus the advantages of coalition-building.

Thus Bush has gone out of his way to express his appreciation for the UN. He is returning the US to membership in UNESCO. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan now is welcomed in the Oval office as UN secretaries-general have not been for a long time.

Other recent developments illustrate the dilemma besetting the administration's current foreign policy handling.

On the one hand, the Bush White House is assailed by critics abroad for superpower arrogance and unilateralism. In part, this is because it proclaims a willingness to make single-handed preventive strikes in self-defense, and is willing to take the war against terrorism to any corner of the world. The recent missile attack in Yemen against a car carrying a high Al Qaeda functionary is but one example of this.

But on the other hand, Bush is embarked on a series of actions designed to consult with, and woo, allies and potential allies, and to build coalitions. This week he is in Europe stroking NATO nations, including seven new members: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Militarily, they are not of great significance, and indeed these days even the old NATO lineup is hard-put to keep up with the awesome new sophisticated military might of the US. But still, though NATO may not be the effective military instrument it once was, Bush is at pains to maintain old political ties and develop new ones.

Similarly, the Bush team is working not only the UN and NATO, but the Organization of American States, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and numerous other international organizations.

Intriguing, too, are the bonds Bush is forging with a diverse array of countries and world leaders. With sometime communist leader of Russia Vladimir Putin, Bush seems to have found a soul mate. Despite Mr. Putin's reservations about Bush's Iraq policy, Putin's recent trouble with Chechen rebels has brought Putin and Bush closer together in their approach to terrorism.

With another communist regime, China, the Bush foreign-policy team is working for reconciliation, especially now that a new leader, Hu Jintao, is in place in Beijing.

With Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Bush's personal relations remain cool following the chancellor's election-campaign criticism of Bush's Iraq policy. But in the case of the always prickly French, Bush and President Jacques Chirac are once again enjoying a love-fest. British Prime Minister Tony Blair remains one of Bush's closest foreign chums.

Thus this week's meeting of NATO leaders will be exposed both to Bush's continuing forcefulness and to his charm campaign. The trick is to determine which will remain paramount.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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