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W.'s Risky Foreign Policy

By Sam Parry

The election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister – and heightened tensions in the Middle East – could present George W. Bush with his first foreign policy challenge, though it's certain to be only one of many tests for Bush’s limited understanding of the world.

Despised by the Arab world for the bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Sharon has vowed to crack down on Palestinian protests and to bring security to Israeli territory. Sharon's hard-line stance means at least a short-term suspension of comprehensive peace talks and possibly worse.

Further complicating the Middle East picture is Bush’s indication that he intends to take a harder line against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, his father’s old nemesis whose survival apparently is viewed as an affront to the Bush family. A confrontation with Saddam could be seen as a way for Bush to prove his mettle in foreign affairs and cement his bond with the American people.

But Bush’s basic ignorance of the world – its geography, its peoples, its leaders and the delicate geopolitical balances that exist in region after region – could be a more long-lasting danger.

Consider just some of the foreign policy issues that Bush will face in his term: the choice between the anti-ballistic missile treaty and an anti-missile "shield"; nuclear proliferation in the developing world; global resource depletion; the threat of global warming; the complex balance between free trade and fair trade; and the U.S. role in regional disputes, such as the Balkans and Colombia.

Consider, too, that Bush will confront a credibility problem in promoting what has long been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy: advocacy of the democratic process. Bush’s decision to grab the presidency even though he lost the popular vote by more than a half million ballots and only then by having five political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court stop the counting of votes in Florida makes America’s high-toned lecturing to others about democracy sound especially hollow.

Given these complexities and drawbacks, there’s a fundamental question about whether Bush is up to the task. Even Bush’s handlers have acknowledged his limited first-hand experience with the world, with only a few overseas trips under his belt. His ignorance about foreign countries – inhabited by "Grecians," "Kosovians" – became campaign jokes.

During the campaign, Bush got a break since the national press corps did little to pin him down on how he would conduct foreign policy. When quizzed about international details, however, Bush did not fare well.

Asked early in the campaign to name the leaders of four hot spots – Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India – Bush could only identify "Lee" as the president of Taiwan. On the Pakistan question, he stumbled "I do know his name … the leader of Pakistan … General … His name is General."

Beyond that, Bush has offered only a sketchy vision of his foreign policy, more slogan than substance.

During the second presidential debate, he said:

I think we ought to be forgiving Third World debt under certain conditions. I think, for example, if we're convinced that a Third World country that's got a lot of debt would reform itself, that the money wouldn't go into the hands of a few but would go to help people, I think it makes sense for us to use our wealth in that way.

Or to trade debt for valuable rain forest lands. Makes that much sense. Yes, we do have an obligation to the world, but we can't be all things to all people. We can help build coalitions, but we can't put our troops all around the world. We can lend money, be we've got to do it wisely. We shouldn't be lending money to corrupt officials. So we gotta be guarded in our generosity.

The press generally let Bush get away with his practice of stating the obvious. Few leaders would endorse spending money unwisely or trying to be all things to all people or putting troops everywhere in the world.

The Bush campaign also defused concerns about the candidate’s wide swaths of international ignorance with assurances that Bush would surround himself with qualified experts. The fact that Bush will have qualified advisers is not in dispute, though one would expect as much for any president. The question remains, however, what will Bush do with their advice and how will he settle differences that inevitably will arise among his advisers.

When faced with a foreign-policy question during the transition, Bush resumed his practice of offering reassuring bromides. At one news conference, he said the United States "will be a nation of free trade" and a model of free enterprise.

Then, seeming to struggle for the right words, he announced that his foreign policy would be "present, but humble." To late-night comedians, it might have sounded like U.S. foreign policy was raising its hand at an attendance check.

Whatever Bush meant by a "present" foreign policy, his strategy is certain to be tested soon. Bush has assumed the presidency at a time of rapid change. The forces of globalization are squeezing the world into a smaller and smaller place.

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