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Creating a New Tone

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By Jim Hoagland
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 6:12 PM

[Editor's note: This article was originally published on April, 29, 2001.]

Grasshopper walks into a bar. Bartender: "We've got a drink named after you." Grasshopper: "You've got a drink named Morton?"

What one hears is not always what the other says. Unintended confusion and willful ambiguity are cousins, expressing themselves as well in words as in silence. And they coexist in a Bush administration that has made itself imperfectly clear on foreign policy in its first 100 days.

The most vivid and important impression that George W. Bush has created in this shakedown period of letting the world get to know him has been one of tough-mindedness. He set out to create a new tone in U.S. relations with "the big ones" -- as he calls Russia, China and America's major allies -- and he has accomplished that to a fare-thee-well.

The biggest shoe of all is still to drop. Bush has spent much of his 100 days reviewing the nation's nuclear posture and readying an announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in six months, as the 1972 accord permits.

To damp down the diplomatic and political firestorm that ABM withdrawal will trigger, the president may link it to promises of significant unilateral cuts in U.S. nuclear warheads. He can also offer to begin new strategic "negotiations" or "dialogue" -- that point has not yet been settled, I am told -- with Russia, while launching serious consultations with Europe and Japan on missile defenses. The language will be designed to lessen the starkness of the word "withdrawal."

A well-balanced effort to redefine global strategic stability beyond the 1972 treaty should be welcomed. But this decision will come on the heels of the president's hard-edged treatment of China over U.S. defense commitments to Taiwan last week and the earlier in-your-face rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Walking away from the ABM accord will add fuel to the argument abroad and at home over whether Bush's tough-mindedness could shade into hot-headedness or impulsiveness.

One bright thread connects the president's initial big decisions on foreign policy: He is bound not to be bound, not by the recent past nor by other nations' ideas of what he should do. If the world calls that unilateralism, Bush will live with it. He intends to take each decision on its own: Call it the Morton School of Diplomacy.

China's bluster before and after the Taiwan arms sales package was announced counted for naught with Bush. The Pentagon's misgivings over providing the advanced Aegis system to any foreign country were decisive -- as they should have been. There was no serious argument within the administration.

And Bush's subsequent cancellation of the well-publicized annual review of arms sales to Taiwan may not have been a move to placate Beijing at all. It looks like a decision to remove a predictable opportunity for the Communist leadership to harangue Washington. Beijing may now learn of future arms sales to Taiwan from the newspapers.

With Bush, the simple explanation is often the best explanation. Bush knows and speaks his mind. Cynics will inevitably say that is no Herculean endeavor. But following his instincts can lead to useful confusion, as well as unuseful clarity.

His ringing declaration in a television interview of his willingness to do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan reversed years of U.S. official silence on that point. White House aides rushed to restore some ambiguity by saying that no change in policy was intended. So we cannot be sure exactly what Bush intended beyond voicing what seems to be a deeply felt personal view.

But the ambiguity on Taiwan is now tilted in the direction of an active U.S. defense. China will have to live with and react to the confusion Bush has created through words, rather than the uncertainty the silence of his predecessors was intended to produce. This is hardly a net loss for Washington. Cacophony in the form of conflicting statements is America's most effective form of disinformation, one former spymaster believes.

The administration's learning curve has been most transparent in its early handling of North Korea, Iraq -- where serious differences between the Pentagon and the State Department remain unresolved and in public view -- and of the Kyoto treaty, where Bush was all too clear about his thinking.

Administration officials have quietly sought to make amends to Europe for torching the treaty without warning, and to offer discussions on an alternative. There is also a realization that the Bush team miscalculated when it assumed that bombing near Baghdad on Feb. 16 would not distract attention from Bush's first foreign trip, to Mexico, that same day.

It has not been 100 days of soothing diplomacy or of smooth sailing. The style of this president and his senior aides is too quick and too blunt for that. But they have in 100 days firmly established their agenda for change as the focal point of world affairs. Like it or not, that is no small accomplishment.


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