By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007
President Bush and his top Cabinet secretaries are scaling back their personal diplomacy around the world to focus more intently on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East as the administration concentrates its energy on top priorities for the president's last 18 months in office.
In the past two weeks, Bush canceled a summit with Southeast Asian leaders in Singapore, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scrapped a trip to Africa and decided to skip a meeting in the Philippines, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates put off a swing through Latin America. The domestic debate over Iraq, which may culminate with a September progress report on the war, has made such travel untenable at the moment, officials said.
The decisions underscore how much Iraq and the turmoil in the Middle East have come to consume Bush's presidency and threaten his ability to forge a lasting legacy. The canceled trips have fueled discontent in regions that have long felt snubbed by Bush, and U.S. diplomats and scholars warn of lasting damage. But as Bush's tenure wanes and Americans' patience with the Iraq war runs short, many specialists in Washington are saying the president must put aside secondary objectives.
"An almost-exclusive concentration on Iraq is almost overdue," said James Dobbins, a longtime diplomat who served as Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan and now is a national security analyst at the Rand Corp. "We can't possibly stabilize Iraq unless we decide it's the most important thing we're doing."
Carlos Pascual, former director of reconstruction and stabilization in Bush's State Department, said failure in Iraq would be so devastating to U.S. standing that devoting more energy there is worth temporarily neglecting other regions.
"They have no choice," said Pascual, now vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "They either surrender this to the fates to be and see how it plays out, or they put all hands on deck and say, 'We're going to make a strategic effort to get this under control.' "
Still, other specialists said the administration's shifting attention demonstrates the debilitating costs that the Iraq war has already imposed on the capacity of the United States to manage its role as the world's lone superpower. While the Bush team has waged war in Iraq, China has expanded its global influence, Russia has been reborn as an increasingly authoritarian and antagonistic power, and anti-Americanism has spread in Latin America.
"There have been substantial public diplomacy resources that have been diverted to Iraq and, I would assume as well, personnel," said Peter DeShazo, former deputy assistant secretary of state under Bush and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Maintaining relations, he said, requires constant diplomatic investment. "You stop making these investments for a period of time, and the effect may not be immediate, but eventually it will be felt."
The string of canceled high-level trips has drawn peeved reviews in different regions. Bush decided not to stop in Singapore for a summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in September, although he will attend the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Australia.
The offense to ASEAN leaders was compounded by Rice's decision not to attend a meeting of its foreign ministers in Manila next month, the second time she has skipped it in three years. The Nation, a Thai newspaper, editorialized about Bush's "audacity" in backing out of the meeting, saying it caused "huge disappointment in most ASEAN capitals."
Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister who is likely to become ASEAN secretary general, said Bush's cancellation "sends a wrong signal to the region," the Reuters news agency reported. "We are getting an indication that we are being marginalized."
Still, other regional leaders expressed understanding. "The U.S. now has a central task, and that is to make sure the situation in the Middle East doesn't get out of control," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo told Channel NewsAsia, noting that Rice called to explain. "They cannot afford to pull out of Iraq in a chaotic way, and Congress is in a fretful mood, so it is absolutely important that she concentrates on that issue."
Rice also scrubbed a trip to Ghana and to Congo, where she would have been the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit in a decade. Instead, she addressed the African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum in Accra via video link. "As you know, now is an especially challenging time in the Middle East and in Iraq, in particular," she said. "And the president has asked me to be in Washington this week."
Bush moved last week to revive the Middle East peace process, and he sent Rice to Lisbon to meet with European, Russian and U.N. officials to rally support for a conference this fall bringing together Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab leaders. Rice also plans to go with Gates to the Middle East soon to try to convince Arab leaders that it is in their interest to support the besieged Iraqi government, if only to keep a bulwark against Iran.
Gates, too, has cleared his immediate schedule of other foreign travel to focus on the Middle East; he already postponed a trip to El Salvador, Colombia, Peru and Chile to help prepare the White House's interim report on Iraq and to lobby Congress to back Bush's strategy for the war.
"The number one priority for the United States is defeating terrorists around the world, and part and parcel of that is succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that does take up a considerable amount of senior officials' time," said Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman.
Some travel will be rescheduled, officials noted. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice plans to make a longer Africa trip. "Certainly, she is very committed to Africa and the future of Africa and the U.S.-Africa relationship," he told reporters last week.
The next two months are crucial for Bush as he battles congressional efforts to pull troops from Iraq. The ASEAN summit comes in the days before the critical report by Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, scheduled for Sept. 15.
Still, Bush decided he cannot miss the APEC summit, also in early September, hosted by his close ally, Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Besides an overnight trip to Ottawa next month, Bush has no other plans to travel abroad for the rest of the year.
Bush has still found time in Washington to attend to other regions, hosting a White House meeting of Caribbean leaders last month and later attending the Conference of the Americas in Northern Virginia. And his administration has scored notable success with North Korea recently, coaxing Pyongyang into shuttering its nuclear reactor.
Other nations will forgive U.S. inattention for the moment, predicted Richard Holwill, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. "I think the world is fairly realistic, fairly grown up about these things," he said. "I would be very surprised if there were ill feelings based on that. There's enough reason to have ill feelings based on other things."