We have now arrived at a critical point in the presidency of George W. Bush.
He faces major challenges in both domestic and foreign policies. Some may be successfully tackled by skillful diplomacy and political skill. Others may be beyond his control and will play out as they will.
At home he must tackle the extraordinarily controversial question of illegal immigration. His bid to solve the pending problems surrounding Social Security is still up in the air, while healthcare, the future financing of which remains even more problematic than that of Social Security, lingers in the shadows. All three of these issues are significant for future generations and demand bilateral statesmanship. Instead they are fraught with political peril for a president whose party is confronted by midterm elections later this year, whose standing in public opinion polls is down, and whose Democratic opposition thinks the Republicans are currently vulnerable. On top of all this, rising gas prices are irritating the electorate.
If by some magical process in the next four or five months the United States could capture Osama bin Laden, see enough stability in Iraq to start removing substantial numbers of American troops, and substantially bring down gas prices at home, the president and his Republican supporters would be riding high. But the likelihood of all three taking place in that time frame is thin indeed.
Iraq is the most pressing foreign problem confronting the American president. The nomination last weekend of Jawad al-Maliki as Iraq's prime minister, a Shiite political activist who spent 20 years in exile during Saddam Hussein's autocratic reign, appears to have eased a long drawn-out political crisis. The way is now open to form a government and approve a constitution. That government must win the trust of Kurds and Sunnis, as well as the Shiite majority, and rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, which currently is unable even to provide reliable electricity and water. All the while, the government must do this as terrorists try to bring it down.
Elsewhere in the world, we are more likely to see defensive, rather than offensive, US policies in play. A power like the United States, with worldwide interests and obligations, should prudently have contingency plans for the projection of military force. But all the signs are that the emphasis is currently on diplomacy, and alliances with countries of common interest.
The handling last week of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the US exemplified this nonconfrontational strategy. Mr. Hu presides over a communist regime that has adopted many aspects of the free-market system to make China an exploding economic power. President Bush in Washington went on record with US distaste for China's human rights abuses, even as American businessmen in Seattle, who see big markets in China, wooed Hu. The US president indicated coolness for China's system of government but recognized China's importance as a trading partner and its usefulness as an interlocutor with North Korea and Iran, two nations whose nuclear weaponry ambitions are troubling to the West. In other words, preserve the status quo and don't rock the boat.
In part to offset China's growing influence in Asia, the president recently visited India to nurture a relationship that has been on and off over the years. Like China, India is fast emerging as a significant economic power, although under a robust democratic system of government. Mr. Bush's wooing of India included support for India's nuclear power development, and even acceptance of its nuclear weaponry program - controversial among some in the US Congress.
Bush did not offer similar endorsement of neighboring Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. This has consequently caused some tension in US-Pakistani relations. Pakistan has been a strong ally of the US in the war against terrorism, for which the US has been grateful. But it has been careless in allowing the export of nuclear expertise and materials to countries on the American blacklist, which the US does not appreciate.
Another problem country with which the US is pursuing its present "don't rock the boat" policy is Russia. In his second presidential term, Vladimir Putin is proving a disappointment, having taken Russia in a new authoritarian direction and aided rogue nations such as Iran. But Bush said recently: "I haven't given up on Russia." He believes that even a cool relationship with Russia can be more useful than a hostile one.
At a delicate time in his presidency, the president is treading gently with foreign friends and foes alike.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.