Bush's Unfriendly-to-All Foreign Policy

Lacking the diplomatic flair of his father or Clinton, the President's own statesman style is so far alienating allies and rivals alike

By Stan Crock

One thing about George W. Bush: On the foreign-policy stage, he's bound and determined not to repeat the mistakes of his two immediate predecessors -- one of them being his own father, the self-proclaimed "foreign-policy President."

Among the first lessons George W. learned from his father's one term in office was not to alienate the conservative base of the Republican Party. Bush the Elder, a centrist Republican, was always suspect in the eyes of the GOP hard-liners. So George II threw social conservatives a few bones right away: one being a prohibition of funding for international agencies with links to abortion services.

Similarly, Dubya has less inclination than either Clinton or Bush Senior to use delicate diplomacy with Beijing -- or the rest of the world for that matter. In fact, Bush is so concerned about not tilting toward China that he has recruited a bevy of Japan experts, such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, but hired precious few Chinese experts. That, some analysts believe, hampered efforts to develop a back channel to work on freeing the 24-member flight crew of the downed U.S. spy plane.

LEAVING THE VOLUME UP.

  Bush knows how his strengths differ from those of his father and Clinton. A former Texas governor and part-owner of a baseball team, George II doesn't seem to have his dad's flair on the world stage (Bush Senior was a top diplomat to China and director of the CIA before becoming President). Nor does he have Clinton's command of such subjects as the Balkans or Middle East. So he can't dive into the issues behind international conflicts himself. He's more of a chairman of the board or CEO, offering broad guidance about direction and leaving the details to others.

Now that China has returned the spy plane's crew to U.S. officials for transport home, Administration insiders insist that Bush played the central role in the development of policy during the standoff. Still, I wonder why he didn't make a quick phone call to Chinese President Jiang Zemin to try to lower the decibel level of the rhetoric. Heck, that's what Poppy would have done. In this case, it makes you wonder where his father was.

Administration officials think that the timing was all wrong for a back-channel phone call. They say Bush's public announcements sent a tough, steady message to both the American people and the Chinese bureaucracy. But the question remains: Did this episode end well because of or in spite of his leadership?

GLOBAL IRRITANT.

  To my ear, the broad direction Bush gives on the foreign-policy stage is often so harsh -- whether it's backing away from the Kyoto global-warming accord or launching tough attacks on Russia and China -- that he angers friends and rivals alike. The tough talk may be another sop to the conservative wing of his party, but it has consequences far beyond American borders. "You have to ask whether the U.S. is sliding into a position where every power center in the world has been irritated by us," says David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

I know this: It's not the way Clinton or Bush Senior conducted foreign policy. But it's still not clear the new President really has an overarching plan for the new political and diplomatic landscape he faces.

Crock covers foreign policy for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht