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New Mideast Diplomacy

Less than two years ago, President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were Los Dos Amigos -- straight-talking ranchers and former governors who declared there was no more important bilateral relationship than that of the U.S. and Mexico. They met enthusiastically and often to discuss issues dear to Fox, such as immigration reform and expanding the scope of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Today, they're not even on speaking terms: They haven't talked since early March, when Mexico declined to support Washington's move for a second U.N. Security Council resolution on disarming Iraq.

Now, Fox is working hard to repair the damaged relationship. He is dispatching his Foreign Minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, to Washington on May 7 for meetings with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and members of Congress. And Fox is showing his support for the U.S. in other ways. Mexico has won plaudits from Washington for mobilizing 30,000 soldiers and police to protect the border during the Iraq war. Mexico even sided with the U.S. in a recent U.N. vote criticizing Cuba's human rights record -- a tough position for a Latin American government to take.

Fox has strong domestic political reasons for trying to revive the U.S.-Mexican dialogue, if he can get results. Nearly halfway through his six-year term, Fox has few accomplishments to chalk up. His domestic agenda has been stymied in the Congress, where his National Action Party (PAN) lacks a majority. Midterm congressional elections will be held on July 6, and the PAN looks unlikely to pick up seats. Meanwhile, Fox's political stature has been weakened by the perception that he embarked, after decades of mutual suspicion, on a risky push to remake relations with the U.S. -- only to be ignored after the September 11 terror attacks. Fox "has paid a high domestic political price for his willingness to bring about a sea change in Mexico's relations with the United States," wrote Jorge Casta?eda, who quit as Foreign Minister in January, in the journal Foreign Affairs recently. If Fox can't make headway on his agenda soon, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could even return to power in the 2006 presidential vote. Three years ago, Fox was the first candidate from a party other than the PRI to win the presidency in seven decades.

But the chances for a breakthrough don't look great, particularly with Bush focused on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Fox still wants an amnesty for 4 million illegal Mexican aliens in the U.S. and a vastly expanded program to allow Mexicans to work temporarily there. But "immigration is a very difficult political issue" given security concerns, says James M. Derham, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Plus, some members of the U.S. Congress, which would have to approve immigration reform, are still angry at Mexico's position on Iraq. The U.S. Congress would also be likely to block any effort by Fox to renegotiate NAFTA-mandated reductions in Mexican tariffs on U.S. agricultural imports.

Fox may be able to win a modest boost in the number of temporary visas for Mexican agricultural workers. That doesn't require congressional support and could lift Bush's standing with American Hispanics, two-thirds of whom are of Mexican origin, before the '04 elections. But that minor concession won't help Fox much at home. For now, Mexican diplomats are putting the best face on the situation. "From time to time, we disagree," notes Juan Jos? Bremer, Mexico's ambassador to Washington. "But the relationship is capable of dealing with transitory differences." Fox's best hope is that his Washington amigo wraps up his war and turns to matters closer to home. On Apr. 30, the U.S. finally presented its long-awaited "road map" for peace in the Middle East to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly-confirmed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The plan lays out steps each side must take -- from ending terrorist bombings to pulling back Jewish settlement outposts in the Palestinian territories -- that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2005.

The road map is part of the Bush Administration's effort to begin reshaping the region in the wake of the Iraq war -- an effort that could stir controversy both in the Arab world and in the U.S. "Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered from the terror and violence," President Bush said in a statement released shortly after the road map's publication. That evenhanded approach to both sides in the conflict could spark a reaction from rightwingers in the Republican Party.

At the same time, nations in the region are likely to be wary of U.S. intentions. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is gearing up for a spate of shuttle diplomacy in the region in May, starting with Syria. He is likely to lean on the regime of Bashar Al-Assad to stop supporting militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah. So far, the Palestinian groups have rejected Abbas' calls for a cease-fire and don't recognize the new peace plan. What's unclear is how much pressure the U.S. will put on Sharon to dismantle settlements. If Sharon moves on this issue, it could cause far right parties in his coalition to quit -- forcing him to team up with the Labor Party to stay in power.

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