Foreign policy message is mixed

Discordance reveals new team at work, possible fissures

March 09, 2001|By Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman | Jay Hancock and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Wednesday lunches attended by President Bush's top national security advisers are supposed to help everybody recite from the same foreign policy script and "keep everything tied together," Vice President Dick Cheney said a few days ago.

In the early days of the administration, however, the voices enunciating foreign policy have at times seemed to come from different briefing books.

Mixed messages from Washington on such key subjects as negotiations with North Korea, Europe's aspirations for a small army outside NATO and the need for United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq have confused allies and enemies alike.

The dissonance may simply reflect disorganization common to new administrations, policy analysts said. Give the new crew a few more weeks and perhaps everybody will be marching in lock step, they said.

But the contradictory foreign policy statements also may betray deeper philosophical differences among Bush's top advisers, some believe, particularly between Colin L. Powell, the moderate secretary of state, and the more hawkish Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"At a minimum this suggests that the Powell-White House connection needs to be worked on," said I. M. "Mac" Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland who has studied the National Security Council. "And at a maximum there's some serious questions here" about a developing foreign policy fissure.

The most recent and perhaps most glaring verbal missteps occurred this week, on the subject of North Korea.

Briefing reporters on the eve of a visit to the White House by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Powell mentioned the previous administration's arms-reduction talks with Pyongyang.

"We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off," Powell said Tuesday. "Some promising elements were left on the table, and we'll be examining those elements."

On Wednesday, after Bush and other officials met with Kim, the administration was delivering almost the opposite message.

"We're not going to start and go at the same place where the Clinton administration left off," a senior administration official, assigned to brief reporters at the White House, said after the meeting. "We're not going to exactly say, `OK, we're going to pick up where they started.'"

Bush reinforced the note of hesitation and the sense that Powell was out of the loop by saying that the U.S. government hoped to have contact with Pyongyang "at some point in the future" but that, meanwhile, there were huge hurdles to a potential U.S.-North Korea deal.

Powell was forced to backtrack, stepping out of the Oval Office while the meeting with Kim was still in progress to tell reporters, "If there was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin, that is not the case."

Joel Wit, an Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, had expected some lack of clarity on Korea policy, given the administration's newness.

"What happened ... was probably worse than I thought it would be, but it's not a surprise," Wit said. "These guys are new. And the administration hasn't done its policy review yet. ... And on top of that there's this kind of split between people who may be more moderate and others" who are more conservative.

Dozens of key foreign policy posts remain to be filled, and Cabinet officials are short on subalterns to coordinate their pronouncements. How much of the policy discordance to attribute to a partially formed administration and how much to ascribe to policy differences among top officials is for the moment a puzzle.

"To be fair, every administration has a shakedown period when the personnel and the systems in it get used to each other and things can happen in that period that create embarrassment and even materially damage the interests of the United States," said Leon Fuerth, who was former Vice President Al Gore's top foreign policy adviser.

"On the other hand, one of the things that does appear to be shaping up ... is the possibility of some tension between people that react quite differently to the realities they are encountering."

North Korea isn't the only issue on which seemingly conflicting signals have issued from Bush's national security apparatus.

Rumsfeld, for example, has said he's "a little worried" that a proposed European rapid reaction military force of 60,000 would undermine trans-Atlantic NATO ties. But Powell, who favors scaling back U.S. overseas military commitments, has said "there's no reason to see this as destabilizing to NATO in any way."

Bush later said, after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair two weeks ago, that he had no reservations about the force.

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