Adjusting to the World

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 6:20 PM

[Editor's note: This editorial was originally published on April 28, 2001.]

SUMMING UP his first 100 days in office, President Bush on Tuesday chose to emphasize in an interview with The Post that his administration was committed to "not making any precipitous moves" to withdraw troops from the Balkans; was "involved on a daily basis" in the Arab-Israeli conflict; and had assured foreign governments that "we'll have a plan to reduce greenhouse gases." If that sounds quite different from the George W. Bush of the campaign trail, or Inauguration Day, or even a month ago, then that's because it is -- and it reflects one of the things that has happened in those 100 days. Like several recent presidents before him, Mr. Bush is finding that altering American policies and commitments abroad is easier to talk about during a campaign than to implement in practice.

That's because American foreign policy in this era of globalization is shaped as much by the pressures and demands of allies, trading partners and adversaries as it is by domestic politics or decision-making in Washington. Before taking office, a would-be president tends to hear, and cater to, only the domestic interests -- the military families stretched by foreign deployments, the senators who oppose international treaties, the policy analysts who believe U.S. interests would be better served with less engagement in regional conflicts. But in its first 100 days the new administration then hears from the world -- presidents and foreign ministers of U.S. allies who land in Washington by the dozens, as well as adversaries who stay away. They have their own arguments and pressures they can bring to bear.

The Middle East offers one concise example. Mr. Bush took office suggesting he wanted to avoid the hands-on engagement of the Clinton administration in the Arab-Israeli conflict and instead focus on reviving the sanctions regime against Iraq. Since then he has been visited by the leaders of Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, all of whom have told him that U.S. engagement with the Palestinians and Israelis is indispensable and also essential to any successful U.S. campaign against Iraq. Mr. Bush has not yet plunged into brokering Arab-Israeli negotiations with the zeal of Mr. Clinton, but he has come a ways back toward the traditional U.S. role in the area. "We recognized that the entire region is affected by the Middle East peace process," Mr. Bush said Tuesday.

The administration's incipient adjustment in the Middle East is necessary and worthy. In other key parts of the world, however, the first 100 days have left Mr. Bush seemingly trapped by conflicting pressures. This is especially true in European affairs. Mr. Bush promised repeatedly during the campaign to strengthen U.S. ties to key European allies, but his opening policies on the Balkans, missile defense and global warming accomplished nearly the opposite, infuriating many European leaders and convincing some that the new president is pursuing not closer partnership but American unilateralism. There was a markedly defensive tone to Mr. Bush's description of European relations this week; he told The Post that they were "good on some fronts" and that "given the chance to make my case to the Europeans, we'll be able to assuage their concerns."

The administration's renewed commitment to the Balkans -- another praiseworthy shift -- certainly will help. In the end, though, Mr. Bush can achieve his stated aim of closer partnership only if he is willing to commit the administration to a deeper collaboration with the Europeans on issues such as missile defense and global warming. European governments at times have their own political reasons to exaggerate ostensible U.S. bullying or obtuseness. But they are not imagining an inclination among some in the administration and the Republican Party to impose U.S. solutions while paying lip service to the value of American alliances. One of the lessons of the first 100 days is that even at a time of unrivaled U.S. power, a president must listen to the world if he is to lead it.


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