Bush Forced to Focus on Foreign Policy

W A S H I N G T O N, April 5, 2001 -- These days President Bush may be feeling a bit like Michael Corleone, who lamented his forced return to the Mafia underworld in The Godfather: Part III, saying, "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in."

Bush arrived at the White House ready to implement a foreign policy based largely on disengagement from the world.

But from the USS Greeneville's deadly collision with a Japanese fishing vessel to the diplomatic fallout over alleged spy Robert Hanssen to the ongoing standoff with China over a crippled U.S. spy plane, forced to land in Chinese territory, world events have forced Bush to become actively engaged in international affairs.

'Deliberate Disengagement'

On the campaign trail, Bush promised a "humble" foreign policy. During the opening weeks of his presidency, he ordered a sweeping review of U.S. military deployments abroad, pulled back from the Middle East and Northern Ireland peace processes, discontinued negotiations with North Korea, considered a possible curtailment of aid to Russia and explored ways to disentangle the United States from the Balkans.

Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, says Bush has exhibited a clear "unwillingness" to engage in foreign policy.

"The striking thing in this administration is … a deliberate, non-engagement in much of international affairs," he says. "An unwillingness, an extraordinary reluctance, to use American power to shape the international environment in ways that promote our interests and values."

The president has also shown that he will place domestic considerations above international relations concerns, pulling out of the Kyoto protocol on global warming saying it was unfair to the U.S. — a move which drew harsh criticism from the 15-member European Union; and pressing his proposal to build a national missile defense system in the face of the strong opposition of such traditional allies as Great Britain and Japan.

China Standoff Only Latest Challenge

For the past five days, the White House has been locked in a diplomatic standoff with China over the fate of the 24-member crew of a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft that landed on the Chinese island of Hainan on Sunday after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.

Beijing is demanding a formal apology and an end to surveillance flights off the Chinese coast. Bush is demanding the immediate return of the crew and their aircraft.

The fateful midair collision was only the latest in a string of international incidents in recent weeks that have forced foreign policy to the White House's front burner.

On Feb. 9, only three weeks into the Bush presidency, the Navy submarine USS Greeneville accidentally sank a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine, while surfacing off the coast of Hawaii. Bush later dispatched a top Naval officer to Japan to issue an official apology.

A week after the Greeneville incident, Bush ordered American warplanes into action over Iraq amid mounting evidence President Saddam Hussein had been beefing up his surface-to-air defenses, threatening the safety of allied aircraft enforcing the no-fly-zones over the country. The joint U.S.-British air-strikes against Iraqi command-and-control sites were the most aggressive since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998.

On Feb. 20, FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen was arrested on charges of spying for Russia and the former Soviet Union, heightening concerns about Russian espionage. In March, the administration expelled 50 Russian diplomats believed to be involved in intelligence gathering activities. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by expelling the same number of U.S. diplomats from Russian soil.

"All our major allies and the major challenges that we see around the world are coming to a head very early and forcing this administration to get its act together quickly," says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center For Strategic and International Studies. "Who else can we anger or get wronged by now that we've done Russia, China [and] Japan?"

'A Busy Day at the White House'

The seemingly rapid-fire series of world events has occurred during the critical first 100 days of Bush's administration, when the president would rather be focusing on smaller government, education reform and a $1.6 trillion income tax cut.

"The world doesn't stand still just because we have an electoral calendar in the United States," says Daalder. "Inevitably, crises arise and presidents who want to focus on domestic policy focus on foreign policy."

On Wednesday, the House passed a key part of the president's tax relief package — a repeal of the estate tax — and the Senate was nearing a vote on the administration's federal budget blueprint.

"There's the House action today, the Senate budget action today, the Chinese situation today," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "It's a busy day at the White House."

Republican political strategist Dan Schnur says the China standoff is completely overshadowing Bush's efforts to build public support for his domestic agenda.

"Even a president only gets so much time on the news each night," he says. "If that time is devoted to a foreign policy crisis … there's less opportunity to sell the tax cut and the budget plan."

But Schnur says the international dispute may also have a hidden political benefit for the president.

"In a time of foreign policy crisis, Americans tend to rally around their leader," he says. "So even though this incident may shift public attention away from Bush's domestic agenda, it could help broaden his overall public support."