Washington Bill Clinton saw Asia as a giant marketplace and a stage for his own brilliance. George W. Bush has come to see it as part of a giant battlefront, where diplomacy and economic relations play secondary roles. Traveling through Asia this week, President Bush has centered his trip and his presidency squarely on national security.
Sept. 11 made an overriding focus on defense inevitable for this or any president. But in substance and form, Bush's quick visits to Japan, South Korea and China as well as revealing statements here by his most senior aides establish how profound and how natural the makeover of the Clinton international agenda has been for the Bush team in one busy year.
Much of that change is welcome. America's 42nd president came to subordinate both human rights and security relationships in Asia to the quest for a new El Dorado in China and a Nobel nomination on North Korea. The policy imbalances that resulted from Clinton's emphasis on protecting trade openings and his legacy almost certainly caused the nation's adversaries to underestimate the United States.
But the Bush administration runs its own risks of pursuing an unbalanced agenda by leaving human rights and economic development behind. Neglecting human rights abuses in China or the clear and present danger that Japan's financial quagmire poses for global recovery can also come back to bite U.S. values and interests. Today no presidency can be played out for long in one dimension.
A revealing moment of the White House's mindset as well as its agenda came as Bush was preparing to leave Washington last weekend to fly to Tokyo. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared Friday before a Council on Foreign Relations audience and was asked to discuss the administration's views on international educational and cultural exchanges and "people-to-people" diplomacy.
His response included generalized praise for such efforts and for the Peace Corps. But he zeroed in only on the need to resume U.S. training for Pakistani military officers. And when another questioner asked if fighting poverty abroad would be part of the Bush war on terrorism, Cheney refrained from answering directly. "There is a debate whether or not poverty contributes" to terrorism, he noted instead.
The central importance of security policy was also evident this week on what could be Bush's most extended foreign trip before the midterm elections in November. Bush curtailed an Asian visit last October because of the terror assault. "The president said then he would reschedule the trip early, and he is keeping a promise by going now," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser.
In Japan, Bush gave extravagant endorsements to the politically faltering prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and his stalled economic reform plan. In his biggest leap of faith since he looked into Vladimir Putin's soul, Bush voiced confidence in Koizumi's leadership ability and strategy. The boost did not stop Japan's stock market from dropping 2 percent that day.
To his credit, Bush also spoke frankly to the Japanese Diet about the need "to move forward boldly with reform and restructuring" of Japan's financial markets. But it was clear to Japanese investors and others that Bush's enthusiasm centers on Koizumi's strong leadership in supporting the global war on terrorism, not on anything he has done about the yen or nonperforming bank loans.
In Seoul, his second stop, Bush also sought to bolster President Kim Dae Jung, who has worked for dialogue with North Korea, without retreating from his description of North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil."
"Dialogue has to be based on strength," Rice said before leaving Washington, "and the strength in this situation is in the relationship between the United States and South Korea."
The fact that Bush went to Tokyo first on his journey and stayed there two nights the same as in Seoul but one more than in Beijing will be read throughout Asia as a signal. Bush criticized Clinton in 2000 for breaking with tradition and toadying to the Chinese by not going to Japan or South Korea while on an extended visit to the Middle Kingdom. Traditional allies count to this administration, more than to its predecessor and more than the chase for El Dorado, Bush's itinerary mutely but clearly says.
Bush, Cheney and Rice all paid tribute to the "multifaceted" nature of the war on terrorism. They are obviously right to make it the central show of their foreign policy. But it cannot remain the only show in town. The Clinton era showed the dangers of that kind of unbalanced approach.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.