NEW YORK -- The world record for the diplomatic reverse back flip now rests comfortably with the Bush administration, which quickly organized and just as quickly disbanded a coalition of nations to speed relief to Indian Ocean tsunami victims earlier this month.
Tsunami humanitarian aid is being coordinated instead by the United Nations, which stands to inherit both the glory and the grief of doing good deeds, which rarely go unpunished. That is as it should be.
But there is a danger of baby-with-bathwaterism. The idea of a core group of powerful Asian nations working with the United States in a regional crisis is a promising concept. It should not be abandoned forever just because it was shot down in this special case. President Bush should refine and return to it.
Washington backed away because of a storm of outrage and indignation that European leaders, U.N. officials and other international heavyweights voiced in private over Bush's Dec. 29 announcement that Australia, India, Japan and the United States would form a core group of aid providers, according to official sources.
After hearing the accusations that Bush was once again "usurping" power and "dividing" the international community, Secretary of State Colin Powell voiced on Jan. 6 a diplomatic equivalent of "never mind." At an aid summit in Indonesia, he yielded the coordination role, and the spotlight, to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, World Bank chief James Wolfensohn and others.
Those worthies now face the uncertain blessings of answered prayers. As Indonesia's government restricts aid workers and grumbles about foreign troops having to be on Indonesian territory to save Indonesian lives, Bush may be thinking that he dodged a bullet.
The episode opens several important windows on the state of world affairs in the dawn of Bush's second term. The haste of Washington's reversal is a measure of the puffed-up intensity of the backlash elicited by Bush's well-intentioned proposal, which paralleled the thinking of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. An element of payback for past slights by the American hegemonist cannot be excluded.
The intensity in turn is a measure of how frayed nerves and relations have become as Annan battles to save his reputation by righting a U.N. staff mired in accusations of corruption and negligence. Annan and his activist new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, saw asserting U.N. leadership in the aid crisis as vital to the organization's future, and they have done this effectively.
The broader question is what the episode suggests about Bush's second term. The president this time did not dig in his heels on a "coalition of the willing" idea that promised efficiency and major geopolitical dividends for the United States. He gave the United Nations all the room -- critics may hope "rope" is the right word -- it sought.
The reversal came as Bush was putting together plans for a European trip in mid-February that may be preceded by a visit to Washington by French President Jacques Chirac. Mending fences with critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq seems to occupy a high priority for an outwardly, well, "kinder and gentler" second Bush term.
That would promise not change but merely an intensification of the pattern of Bush's first term, in which the president frequently let Powell get his way on process and procedure but then stuck with the harder-edge views of Vice President Cheney on substance at decision time.
The challenge for Condoleezza Rice as Powell's successor, and her nominated deputy, Bob Zoellick, will be to blend process and substance into a uniform world approach that American allies and adversaries alike will find predictable. The Asia core group is a good place to start.
The Bush team has assets to draw on to establish the broad Asia policy it now lacks. Australia, India and Japan in varying degrees are all much more receptive to Bush's strategic vision of a radically changed world than is Europe. Unveiling the Asia core group on Dec. 29 to manage naval deployments and other tsunami-related matters was an instinctive, if premature, recognition of this broader reality.
Missing from the group was Asia's greatest rising power, China. The administration will naturally want a regional structure that accommodates and reinforces Beijing's constructive tendencies and limits its potential for damage. That is a tall, but necessary, order.
Mending fences in Europe early is a no-cost exercise that is unlikely to change fundamental points of transatlantic disagreement. Visit Europe, yes. But think hard and soon about Asia, Mr. President. Strategic change is on the gallop there.