A Tough Guy Approach To An "Untidy" World

Bush and his hawkish team are raising international eyebrows

It was the opening salvo for the new Bush Administration's foreign policy, and Donald H. Rumsfeld opted for heavy artillery. Sure, the Soviet Union is no longer a superpower, the prospective U.S. Defense Secretary told senators at his confirmation hearing on Jan. 11. But the outlook remains ominous, and the Pentagon needs far more money to prepare for the new dangers of the 21st century. Rumsfeld sees potential challenges from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, China, Russia, and growing bands of global terrorists. We live, he declared, in a "dangerous and untidy" world, of "smaller but in some respects more deadly threats."

Rumsfeld's muscular rhetoric hearkens back to the cold war years of the 1970s, when he was last Defense Secretary. And it reflects his new boss's wishes. President George W. Bush may know more about education and other domestic issues, but he is expected to move aggressively to shift foreign policy back to a more traditional focus on U.S. national-security interests.

At the core of the Bush foreign policy will be military strength. The new President wants to spend billions to bankroll defense-related research, replace aging ships and planes with next-generation technology, and finance a controversial national missile defense (NMD) system aimed at protecting the U.S. against nuclear attacks by rogue states such as North Korea or Iran. Bush also wants to bolster alliances in Europe and Asia to boost America's leverage in dealing with two key powers in transition--a declining Russia and a surging China. The new President's goal: to show Moscow and Beijing they will pay a price if they threaten their neighbors or the U.S. and reap benefits if they become full-fledged members of the community of nations.

Backing up Bush's defense strategy is his international economic agenda. One priority: the crafting of a free-trade agreement for the Western hemisphere, perhaps as early as 2003. But what Bush won't do, some of his advisers say, is devote as much time as Bill Clinton did to fostering nation-building in places like the Balkans. This game plan could have flaws, as outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright warns. Bellicose rhetoric can make enemies when a more nuanced policy is needed, she argues. And "it's impossible for the U.S. to just close its eyes to what's going on" in places such as Kosovo, she notes. "It's not your father's foreign policy."

DARK WARNINGS. Bush and his team are hardly likely to heed that advice. But if they maintain a hard-line posture, they could well shake up America's allies, as well as its foes. Already, politicians in Europe, Russia, and Asia are reacting--mostly negatively--to Bush's missile defense program. "NMD can become a problem. What concerns everybody are the strategic repercussions," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine says. Leaders of Russia and China both warn darkly about a sped-up arms race. It's also possible, though, that Bush may start out with a tough stance a la Reagan but end up, like his father, avoiding conflict with America's allies. On NMD, for example, Bush could quell allies' fears by offering to protect them with the shield as well.

Bush's ability to set--and control--a new foreign policy agenda will be tested from the start. Already mired in deadly violence, the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation could explode into a wider war at any time. Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein could challenge the new President's resolve to uphold decade-old sanctions as early as this spring. Closer to home, Colombia is set to choose by Jan. 31 either a path for peace or to escalate its war with its guerrillas--a decision that could mean greater U.S. involvement through the Clinton-backed Plan Colombia, which is channeling funds to the Colombian military. Another tough decision looms in April, when Bush will have to decide whether to sell destroyers to Taiwan--a hot-button issue for China.

An incoming President who has rarely even traveled abroad, Bush knows he can't steer through these dangerous waters without help. That's why he has assembled a top-flight team of national-security hands, including 68-year-old Rumsfeld and veterans of the earlier Bush Administration, Secretary of State-designate Colin L. Powell, 63, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, 46. The trick will be managing this group of powerful personalities. That job is likely to fall largely to Vice-President Dick Cheney. "Cheney is the key player to make all this work," says Chester A. Crocker, professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University. The early betting is that Cheney will side more often with Rumsfeld, his mentor in the Ford Administration, than with Powell, his colleague in Bush Sr.'s Administration.

One key issue that may test Cheney's diplomatic skills inside the Administration is policy toward China and Taiwan. Bush is likely to back significant arms sales to Taipei--a position that Rumsfeld would probably favor. But there is likely to be a debate inside the Administration over how far to go in tipping the military balance and over how explicit to make U.S. support for the island nation if China were to attack.

FLEXIBILITY. Powell may well argue for caution, particularly because some Chinese officials and analysts have indicated that Beijing is willing to take a more flexible approach toward Taiwan. "We are more and more confident about our ability to solve the Taiwan problem," says Li Jiaquan, a research fellow specializing in Taiwan at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "If the U.S. stands up and says that if there is a war it will protect Taiwan, this will be very unwise," he adds. One high-level diplomat in previous Republican administrations says the Bush team may postpone the April decision on sales of destroyers and other weapons to have time to better gauge Beijing's level of accommodation.

As they deal with Russia, China, or longtime foes like Saddam Hussein, there's no doubt the new American foreign-policy team wants to take a tough, pragmatic approach to creating a more secure world for America. They may succeed in diminishing some threats, just as Reagan and other cold warriors did years ago. But in the short term, it's likely that the Republicans will learn it was far easier to carp at the Clinton Administration from the sidelines than to make progress in the post-cold-war era. Once they take their seats in power, the Republicans may quickly find that mastering global politics in the 21st century will be a lot more complex than it was in the 20th.

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