Bush needs endorsement at Asia summit

His reputation at risk if world leaders spurn action in Afghanistan

Hostility from many Muslims

War On Terrorism

The World

October 19, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's trip to China, in the midst of a bioterror crisis at home and the war in Afghanistan, is intended to show that he is not paralyzed by events at home. But it also poses a risk to his newly enhanced reputation as a world leader.

The U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is likely to overshadow the economic and trade agenda in Shanghai, and the intensity of the support Bush receives from other leaders will be closely watched.

"This is going to be more difficult for him in the wake of the last 72 hours. Who knows when the next envelope [containing anthrax] will be opened?" said James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration.

The president won't be lining up new military support, though Australia is sending troops and Japan also has offered support. However, he does need to come away from the summit with a "reasonably forthcoming statement" endorsing the counter-terror campaign, said Steinberg.

Bush will have to step nimbly to avoid further alienating Asia's large Muslim populations, which are skeptical of or openly hostile to U.S. strikes in Afghanistan.

Opposition to the war from several Asian nations could force Bush to abandon any effort to obtain explicit backing for the U.S. military effort at the summit meeting, for fear of sparking a renewed backlash in the region.

"We're not going to ask nations to contribute in ways that their people won't understand or accept," Bush told a group of Asian journalists before leaving.

Wendy Sherman, a former top State Department official, said the trip is "not without some risks" for Bush. But, she added, "there is great power to photographs of leaders standing together."

She called the meetings in Shanghai "a very important piece" of Bush's strategy for sustaining the international effort against Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida network and its Taliban allies, which could take many months.

At the same time, Bush's personal reputation is on the line as he takes his first trip to Asia as president and his first outside the United States since Sept. 11. The American leader, with little experience in foreign affairs, has been seen abroad, until recently, as an arrogant Texas cowboy.

Before last month, his administration's focus was largely on international business opportunities for U.S. companies - not on becoming the world's policeman. Bush once declared, before he was elected, that the guiding principle of his foreign policy would be to ask the question: "What does it mean for American jobs?"

"The world's perception, including Asia's perception, of Bush has changed over the last month. It's much more positive," said James Mann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

For the first time since Sept. 11, key leaders will be dealing with Bush firsthand, including Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. "It's going to raise, once again, the question of how skillful he is," said Mann.

Bush said this week that he wants other world leaders "to see how determined I am to succeed and that [I] will not yield until we send a clear signal [that] if you harbor a terrorist as a nation, you will be held accountable."

Whether Bush is able to deliver on that threat, once the Afghan military operation ends, is very much an open question. What is increasingly clear, though, is the Sept. 11 attack completely reshaped the globe, offering unanticipated opportunities for new alignments among old adversaries.

Bush has taken advantage of those opportunities to gain international support for his anti-terror campaign from countries such as Russia and China. But this weekend's summit also illustrates the limits of the support he has received and the complexities of the new world he is helping to create.

China's leaders, while publicly standing behind the United States and offering to share intelligence information, are privately unhappy that Bush's anti-terror agenda will become the focus of the trade meetings where they are proudly playing host.

The sudden warming of relations between Washington and Moscow - Bush said he and Putin "will work to deepen the Russian-American partnership" when they meet Sunday - is likely to make China even more nervous about U.S. intentions in Asia.

The new U.S. alliance with Pakistan, near China's western border, and the war in Afghanistan will also deepen Beijing's concerns about instability in the region, added Mann, author of "About Face," a study of Sino-U.S. relations.

Recent, deadly flare-ups in Kashmir between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, and the worsening violence in the Middle East are further signs of growing instability worldwide. So, too, is the rise in political violence in southeast Asia, home to one-fourth of the world's Muslims.

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