Good-will ambassador?

December 03, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Ever since President Woodrow Wilson went to Europe for the Versailles Treaty negotiations after World War I and took a victory lap around the continent's capitals, American presidents periodically have embarked as good-will ambassadors abroad.

Their customary mission has been to mend fences and generally convey American respect for and harmony with the host countries. If not, why go?

The question seems particularly pertinent in light of President Bush's trip to Canada this week in which he encountered a relatively restrained diplomatic reception in Ottawa, where a raucous street protest occurred outside Parliament against his war in Iraq.

Anti-war demonstrators in Vancouver toppled an effigy of Mr. Bush bearing the legend "Self-Appointed Emperor of the World," in the manner of how U.S. troops brought down the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad in April 2003.

At a news conference in Ottawa, Mr. Bush stiffed Prime Minister Paul Martin on the ban of U.S. importation of some Canadian beef in light of the mad cow disease issue and on other trade matters. Mr. Martin expressed his disappointment over "time delays" in resolving the beef import issue, saying it "has been studied to death" and concluding, "I expressed our frustration."

When a reporter asked Mr. Bush whether he was responsible for a rift in U.S.-Canadian relations, the president pointed to his re-election as a mandate for continuing his foreign policy, a major cause of friction in Canada. "We just had a poll in our country where people decided that the foreign policy of the Bush administration ought to stay in place for another four years," he said, "and it's a foreign policy that works with our neighbors."

Mr. Bush also said that he had made some decisions "that some in Canada didn't agree with," citing "removing Saddam Hussein and enforcing the demands of the United Nations Security Council." The answer artfully glossed over the fact that Canadians, as well as dissenting Americans, didn't disagree with the objective but with how it was implemented through a pre-emptive war denied specific U.N. sanction.

Mr. Bush, in reference to sentiment against him abroad, at one point invoked his fraternity boy humor. He said his reception en route from the Ottawa airport "was very warm and hospitable, and I want to thank the Canadian people who came out to wave -- with all five fingers -- for the hospitality."

Mr. Martin showed he understood Mr. Bush's reference to the middle digit as a signal of contempt by injecting: "Spanish and English and French are three different languages, but that sign language is universal."

The remarks reflect a growing anti-Americanism, or at least anti-Bushism, abroad, that the American president has encountered on other trips, even in London, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has been his most steadfast supporter on the war.

In Chile recently, the large Bush entourage ruffled feathers when the president "rescued" a Secret Service agent temporarily barred from following him into an Asian-Pacific economic meeting. Also, a large ceremonial dinner was canceled because Chilean President Ricardo Lagos balked at Secret Service insistence that other foreign leaders be obliged to go through a metal detector to dine with the American president.

Any American who has traveled abroad recently is likely to have encountered a greater degree of anti-Americanism and displeasure with Mr. Bush.

At a news conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before leaving Canada, the president set as second-term goals "building effective multinational and multilateral institutions and supporting effective multilateral action." But then he took a slap at Canada for refusing to back the Iraq invasion. "The objective of the U.N. and other institutions," he said, "must be collective security, not endless debate."

It certainly is proper for an American president just re-elected to make a fresh start at rebuilding good relations with other countries by traveling abroad. But pointedly reminding Canadians that he remains in charge, and will stay the course he has set on a foreign policy with which they have intense reservations, seems a cavalier way to convey good will.

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

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