Bush foreign policy all over the map

April 12, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Now that President Bush has at long last decided that "enough is enough" and he can no longer treat the Middle East cauldron as a pesky sideshow, it would be helpful to know just how he sees himself as a player on the foreign policy stage.

As the Republican presidential nominee in 2000, he repeatedly spoke of disengaging the United States from playing cop in various disputes around the globe, and particularly from aspirations of nation-building.

The Europeans expressed concern after President Bush was elected that he would go it alone, particularly since President Bill Clinton was an interventionist, albeit often reluctantly. Mr. Bush seemed to many Europeans to be veering from the Cold War tradition of multilateralism that had held together the West and NATO since the end of World War II.

Then came Sept. 11, and Mr. Bush's aggressive embrace of collective action against the perpetrators, the al-Qaida terrorist organization and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that gave the terrorists a home. He told the world community it was time to choose sides in the war on terrorism and that anybody who "isn't with us is against us." Overnight, the unilateralist became a multilateralist.

With early success in dispersing, if not liquidating, al-Qaida and driving the Taliban from power, Mr. Bush was obliged, in the resultant vacuum, to take at least a partial hand in nation-building, in the effort to put an interim regime in Kabul.

Then came the escalation of that war to a self-imposed mission to go after his self-styled "axis of evil" engaged in the pursuit of building weapons of mass destruction - not only Saddam Hussein in Iraq but also Iran and North Korea.

It was an imperfect linkage, if it was his intent to conjure up the same sort of world peril posed by the World War II Axis powers of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, which really did constitute a working alliance of evil.

The problem for Mr. Bush, the new multilateralist, was that the wide amalgam of nations he effectively stitched together to fight the al-Qaida terrorist peril was not nearly so ready to buy into that escalation, or to accept that imperfect linkage. Partners in the war on terrorism had varying assessments of their own about Iraq, Iran and North Korea and how the threat from each needed to be confronted.

It was not long before signals were coming from the White House and some Pentagon quarters that Mr. Bush was ready to put on his unilateralist hat again by applying military force against Iraq alone if necessary, or only with his new best international friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Meanwhile, the seemingly unending conflagration between Israel and the Arab world in the Middle East was getting progressively worse, escalating to the current Palestinian suicide bombings and brutal Israeli military crackdown. On this stage, Mr. Bush played the noninterventionist, for too long refusing to intercede personally in any meaningful way while the region was going up in smoke.

When he finally did decide to speak out, he first sided conspicuously with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, choosing to see the military assault against the Palestinians as little more than an extension of the war on terrorism. That was fine with Mr. Sharon, but many other partners in that war, while deploring the Palestinian suicide bombings and Yasser Arafat's empty rationales of them, did not share that view.

Now Mr. Bush has finally begun to lean hard on both sides of the conflict to desist from the blood-letting, dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. But the president is finding out that while he may be the leader of the world's only superpower, it is not enough to deliver a stern schoolmaster's admonition to Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat not to dare "ignore" him.

Mr. Bush may yet rise to the occasion and bring a semblance of order out of the current chaos by putting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations back on track. But the mixed foreign-policy signals he has sent to date don't inspire a lot of confidence that he knows where he's going on this front.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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