Archive for Friday, April 6, 2001

Global pull-back is difficult

April 6, 2001


China's downing of a U.S. spy plane has taken the headlines from White House visits of Middle East leaders.

But in a larger sense, visits by Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders and the standoff with China highlight the new administration's efforts to trim U.S. involvement overseas and the difficulty President Bush faces in doing so.

During last year's campaign, Mr. Bush said the Clinton administration was more engaged than was needed to protect vital U.S. interests. Such campaign statements often don't survive the onset of a new administration.

In 1988, Vice President George Bush suggested the Reagan administration had been too accommodating to the Soviets, only to go even further once in office. Bill Clinton criticized Mr. Bush's China policy but later adopted its main aspects.

But the start of this new administration indicates that this president meant what he said about reducing the U.S. overseas role. Mr. Bush has signaled a pullback in no fewer than a half-dozen areas of international relations.

In Northern Ireland, where Mr. Clinton took the lead in crafting a tenuous pact between Catholic and Protestant factions, Mr. Bush said he won't name a high-level envoy and assigned the issue to a senior State Department official.

In Korea, Mr. Bush reversed a statement by Secretary of State Colin Powell and said the United States would delay pursuing an agreement with North Korea on nuclear cooperation.

In the Middle East, the president said that, while the United States hopes for a reduction in Arab-Israeli tensions, it won't continue the high-level U.S. effort to forge a comprehensive peace agreement.

Mr. Bush has refrained from inviting Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who is drawing the primary blame for the continuing violence and the failure of the prior U.S. peace effort.

And while the new administration is maintaining its two predecessors' condemnation of Iraq, Mr. Powell has spoken publicly of relaxing the U.S. economic embargo toward Saddam Hussein.

The administration also is giving consideration to reducing U.S. efforts to foster democracy in Russia and reduce its nuclear stockpile. And Mr. Bush has indicated he doesn't share Mr. Clinton's idea of a "strategic partnership" with China.

He also discontinued the Clinton administration's most intensive international environmental effort by withdrawing U.S. support for the global warming treaty negotiated at Kyoto in 1997.

Finally, the administration wants to reduce the U.S. role in the Balkans but has encountered the reality of a spread in instability to Macedonia and renewed European reluctance to shoulder the burden.

The underlying questions here not only are whether the administration is correct in its view that U.S. national security isn't always at stake in these places but also whether its efforts to retreat are sustainable in the long term.

Sandy Berger, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser, unsurprisingly argues that such a policy is unsustainable. "It's very important for America to be engaged in the peacemaking business," he told reporters this week.

If he is correct, the next two years will see some evolution and revision of the administration's efforts.

There is a certain irony in this. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Democrats got a reputation as the "new isolationists," unwilling to assert U.S. authority abroad. On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, most congressional Democrats opposed military action.

But the first Bush administration began to pull back at the end, especially in the Balkans. By contrast, Mr. Clinton took a more aggressive overseas stance, often attracting congressional GOP criticism.

Now, the new Republican administration wants to pull back abroad, even while events may be conspiring to complicate that goal.

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