Bush's softer global tone
As November nears, president pursues more cooperation and less confrontation with the rest of the world.
WASHINGTON — After leading a much more activist and aggressive foreign policy than most observers anticipated when he took office, President Bush is now redirecting American efforts on the world stage into quieter diplomatic channels as he shifts into campaign stance for the November election.
The surprise results of elections in Spain - where voters upset with the handling of last week's devastating terrorist bombings defeated one of President Bush's staunchest European allies in the war in Iraq - will only reaffirm Bush's growing emphasis on conciliation, analysts say.
With the war on terror and conditions in Iraq topping voters' foreign-policy concerns, the White House has no interest in fueling the "with us or against us" image that typified US foreign relations following Sept. 11. Now with major interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Haiti stretching the US military thin, and results still uncertain on overseas fronts the administration has emphasized, the Bush team's focus is on cooperation rather than confrontation with the world - and on getting Iraq in as good a place as possible by November.
A big worry for a president who has built his reputation on steadiness in wartime is "this idea out there that we may have won the war but are losing the peace," says Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department official and now director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. [Editor's note: The original version placed Jentleson at the wrong university.]
The election in Spain of a Socialist leader who pledges to pull troops out of Iraq and wait until there is a United Nations umbrella will inevitably stoke discussion in the US campaign of how the Bush administration chose to fight the Iraq war, Mr. Jentleson says. But he thinks it will also "energize what some would call the belated efforts by the Bush administration to engage the international community broadly - the United Nations, the Europeans, and others - into what has to become a collaborative effort."
Pointing to such cases as North Korea, Iran, the Middle East, and Haiti, experts say the foreign-policy trend emanating from the White House is already under way.
Conciliation with Pyongyang over its nuclear aspirations, as demonstrated at multiparty talks last month, is one example of the new diplomatic stance. Others include Iran - the US taking a back seat to the Europeans in tackling Tehran's nuclear power program; a plan for promoting Middle East reform based more on cooperation with other powers than on trumpeting achievements in Iraq; and a hesitant, incremental approach to the Haiti crisis.
All suggest an administration anxious to demonstrate its multilateralist side - and to avoid new entanglements in foreign crises.
"The focus now is on getting Iraq right, transferring power to the Iraqis and keeping a large security component in place to back up the political transition," says Max Boot, a foreign policy expert with close knowledge of the White House. "But there's no question [the administration] wants to kick every other crisis down the road and have no other crises between now and election time. They're working to keep North Korea and Pakistan and Iran far off the front pages, to the extent that's possible."
Of course, world events won't always cooperate, as demonstrated by the Spanish elections and before that the Haiti crisis.
Last week's terrorist bombings in Madrid showed "the one wild card" that can disrupt the administration's policy revamp says Mr. Boot, a specialist in US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign relations in New York. The problem, he says, will be "the surprises your enemies can hold for you that would require the more forceful actions."
Another example is the kind of political turmoil that convulsed Haiti, where the US has dispatched 1,500 marines for a three-month period to help restore order. Mr. Jentleson says Haiti "threw the administration a curve ball" that it "only regrettably began paying attention to in the bottom of the ninth inning."
One explanation for a toning down of the administration's interventionist side is the reality that even the world's sole superpower can only handle so many wars and crises in a four-year span. After Sept. 11, the war on terrorism and wars that toppled two regimes have been about as much as the nation's diplomatic apparatus, the armed forces - and the public - can handle, experts say.
But another point they make is that polls continue to show Americans most comfortable with a more multilateralist and cooperative approach to the world. Many Americans have expressed an unease over the perception that the US under Bush has alienated some allies. In response, the White House wants to build up the image of the president as leader of not just a more secure world, but a more peaceful and democratic one.
"The main interest now may be to show the American people that [Bush] is not just a war president, that he can also be a peacemaker," says Ken Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution who was on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton years.
That is one reason the White House is preparing a "wider Middle East" initiative for political and economic reform in the region, to be unveiled at a series of global meetings. That kind of "peace initiative" plays to the political "middle" Bush will be courting more intensely as the campaign heats up.
Mr. Pollack, who lauds the way the first Bush administration took advantage of the Gulf War to press for movement in the Arab-Israeli conflict with the Madrid peace conference, says the current Bush administration failed to make a similar investment after victory in Iraq, and now the US is farther behind in the Arab region than it was. "In the may-June period [after the war] I was hopeful," says Pollack. "It was a terrible lost opportunity."