WASHINGTON - Having already decided not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to a United Nations conference on racism because of dissatisfaction with the agenda, the Bush administration is now reported to be considering a boycott of another U.N. meeting on children for the same general reason.
The gripe about the racism conference in South Africa is that Arab states intend to use it to equate Zionism with racism, downgrade the Holocaust and otherwise smear Israel, America's strong ally.
The administration also takes issue with an argument by African states for reparations to countries raided by slave trade.
The complaint about the conference on children before the U.N. General Assembly next month is that it may produce advocacy of abortion counseling and services that run counter to positions of the Bush administration.
The fears of walking into stacked situations hostile to administration policy and interests may be well founded, but picking up your marbles and going home even before the game has started has never been a defensible strategy. The spectacle of this country's first African-American secretary of state taking a pass on a conference on racism is particularly regrettable.
Beyond the specifics involved in both conferences, the Bush administration's attitude only feeds an already well planted impression that the new American president has a go-it-alone philosophy toward foreign policy. It has been generated most notably in his insistence on throwing over the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, whether they or our NATO allies like it or not.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others have made it clear they don't like it, for all the diplomatic tap-dancing over willingness to consult. And U.S. plans to start clearing land in Alaska for a new ABM site no doubt tell them Mr. Bush has already made up his mind.
The contrast with the sound and deliberate approach of his father in building the international diplomatic and eventually military response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait is pointed. When military action finally took place in the Persian Gulf war, it was with the strong support of most of the international community with an interest in the region.
One of the factors that makes the junior Bush's my-way-or-the-highway approach unsettling is his own shaky background and experience in foreign affairs, demonstrated in his campaign debates last year. He handled most questions gingerly and in generalities that revealed little appreciable depth or understanding.
Fortunately for him, the transparent frustration and condescension displayed in Al Gore's rolled eyes and audible sighs in response to some of Mr. Bush's answers seemed to backfire with voters.
At the same time, the Bush political strategists effectively set low expectations for Mr. Bush on foreign affairs, which he was able to meet.
The selection of Mr. Powell to be his secretary of state, well advertised in advance of the election, may have helped shore up this particular area of responsibility for Mr. Bush with voters, but Mr. Powell has seemed at times curiously restrained in the job. Perhaps it is no more than willingness on his part not to upstage a new president seen by many, fairly or not, to be taking on-the-job training in foreign policy.
During the half century of the Cold War, with the United States vying with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of other nations, American administrations of both parties generally took advantage of most international forums to make their case. Now, as the world's recognized superpower, the United States is seeming to function unilaterally in foreign relations, whether regarding the United Nations or individual countries. That invites resentment.
No nation, no matter how powerful, can expect to have its way all the time in free-wheeling discussions with the rest of the world community. It would have been much better for Mr. Powell to have gone to South Africa and stood tall for American positions than to leave the field to those who seek to undermine them. Let's hope the mistake isn't repeated with a U.S. boycott of next month's U.N. meeting on children.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.