Painful lessons on the high price of going it alone

October 25, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush is learning the hard way that it's good to have friends, whether it's in meeting obligations at home or abroad.

The latest illustration is the coming flu season's vaccine shortage.

After opposing the general importation by Americans of cheaper drugs from Canada, the Bush administration is getting a cool reception from our northern neighbor about filling that specific gap.

Mr. Bush, in his final debate with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, suggested that Canada could be a source of the vaccine. Canada's chief producer informed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that it might be able to help. But the Canadian health minister, Ujjal Dosanjh, added the caveat, "If there's anything we can spare."

In Mr. Bush's debate with Mr. Kerry, the president cited concerns about the safety of cheaper Canadian prescription drugs as his reason for opposing a free flow of them into this country. That observation certainly hasn't made many Canadians eager to share their available supply of flu vaccines with their big brother south of the border.

The lesson that it's good to have friends is being taught to the president in other ways as well.

In soliciting more help in the Iraq war, Mr. Bush continues to get stiffed by the majority of the world's nations and notably by our once-close buddies, France and Germany, in what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has dismissively labeled "Old Europe."

The president's pre-invasion observations about the United Nations risking irrelevance by not embracing his regime change adventure also have taken their toll in cooperation from member states and from the world body's experienced election-monitoring arm.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has labeled the Iraq invasion illegal under the U.N. Charter, had until recently declined to dispatch the world organization's elections experts to Iraq to prepare and monitor the scheduled January voting there, citing inadequate security.

Ever since the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was bombed more than a year ago, with the deaths of 17 staffers, including the United Nations' chief diplomat to Iraq, Mr. Annan has refused to reopen the mission.

The secretary-general, however, has now sent a small U.N. team to Baghdad, with a limit of 35 experts, while calling for a small volunteer force from member states to guard them and make it possible to send more experts. But only tiny Fiji offered a handful of troops.

Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari complained that the number of experts was inadequate, noting that the United Nations had sent 300 to monitor the referendum on independence in East Timor in 1999. The top U.N. election official in Iraq, Carlos Valenzuela of Colombia, told the Associated Press, however, that preparations for the January elections were "on track."

Such inhibitions to more sympathy for Bush administration problems at home, and the lack of greater cooperation with its objectives abroad, should give the president cause to contemplate his relations with the community of nations toward which he has so often displayed a high-handed, if not contemptuous, attitude.

But in the midst of a presidential election campaign, he chooses either to exaggerate the scope of his "coalition of the willing" in Iraq or to continue playing on right-wing hostility and animosity toward the United Nations as a drag on the exercise of U.S. power.

All this should serve to illustrate to American voters at this critical time the price this country is paying for the unilateral posture on foreign policy that has so conspicuously marked Mr. Bush's first term.

The matter of the flu vaccine shortage is, to be sure, frivolous when compared with the damage to American esteem that the president's adventure in Iraq has inflicted on the concept of global collective security that saw the world through the Cold War. Now, as then, it's good to have friends.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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