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Archive for Sunday, June 10, 2007

Pre-summit shifts more show than substance

June 10, 2007

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In the weeks leading up to last week's annual summit of industrial nations, the White House has modulated President Bush's stance on a number of issues to bring him more in line with his fellow Western leaders.

It increased U.S. funds to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, strengthened sanctions against Sudan to curb genocide in Darfur, and proposed a new approach for a fresh round of talks on global warming.

The president even suggested he looks forward to phasing out the U.S. combat role in Iraq.

Aside from the prospect of friendlier atmospherics at the sessions in Germany, however, it's unclear how much has really changed on issues that divide Bush from this nation's historic allies in Europe. Only election of a new American administration is likely to bring the policy changes that would do that.

The major dividing point between Bush and other G-8 leaders is global warming. The president continues to reject the call by Germany's Angela Merkel, this year's host, for a mandatory global cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, he favors talks to develop a looser, country-by-country approach.

Indeed, while the White House drew some plaudits for making a positive proposal, its plan seems likely to push the issue beyond his administration, raising the question of whether it's primarily a ploy to ease its negative image.

Iraq remains a sore point with the allies. Still, Bush's May 24 comment that he'd ultimately like "a different configuration" - in which U.S. troops mainly train Iraqis and protect border security while special forces chase suspected al-Qaida elements - was the first concrete sign he may be easing his resistance to reducing forces.

But the president's words seemed mainly aimed at growing concern among Republicans that failure to chart a clear path out of Iraq could create another GOP electoral disaster next year.

Though some officials immediately suggested the possibility of significant cuts in U.S. combat forces next year, others said that was premature and depended on events over the ensuing months.

At present, of course, the United States is still increasing its troop strength as part of the "surge" aimed at curbing violence in Baghdad. Even now, there have been some suggestions from the military that the force level is still too low to have the desired effect.

As for what follows a planned September review of the situation, a serious question remains as to whether even a modest cut in troops will halt rising domestic pressure to withdraw all combat forces.

The administration does not seem to have helped itself by comparing its expectation of an extended U.S. presence in Iraq to the presence of nearly 40,000 U.S. troops in Korea some 50 years after hostilities ended there.

Still, none of this suggests that Bush is so wedded to his positions that he's incapable of change. In the past, he has reversed course in a number of instances.

Nine months after the 9/11 attacks, he dropped his opposition and proposed creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. He opposed an independent probe of the terrorist attacks and then accepted one.

But on matters about which he really cares, his changes are often more tactical than substantive. In 2001, he reduced the cost of his tax cut plan by making it expire after nine years, believing political pressures would ensure its extension.

Though many cuts will ultimately be extended, the extent may depend on whether a Democrat or a Republican wins the 2008 election.

Bush also agreed to higher funding levels to get his No Child Left Behind education bill passed. But he has continually resisted Democratic efforts to provide the full amount of money.

Given that history, there's reason to think his pre-summit tweaking of positions was designed more to ensure pleasant sessions on the Baltic seacoast than to produce significant shifts in policy.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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