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Who's Calling the Shots?
Published on Sunday, April 8, 2001 in the Maine Sunday Telegram
Who's Calling the Shots?
Bush's Team of Extremists Embarrass Colin Powell
by John Chuckman
 
In a humorous event during the election, not widely reported in this country, presidential candidate George W. Bush enthusiastically received the news, announced by a Canadian satirist posing as a reporter, that Canada's Prime Minister Poutine had endorsed his candidacy. Now, Bush could not be expected to know that "poutine" is a Quebec junk food consisting of french fries, cheese curds and gravy. He might, however, have been expected to know the name of Canada's actual prime minister, Jean Chretien, one of the most enduring politicians in North America and a man whose son was ambassador to Washington.

But what was most remarkable in Bush's reaction was that he did not instinctively understand that protocol dictates never endorsing candidates in the elections of friendly countries. This rule is so logical that it requires no diplomatic training to appreciate.

Another amusing moment in the campaign had Bush boasting that he never read the international section of the newspaper, a claim that has considerable appeal in parts of the country where politicians actually brag about never holding a passport or traveling outside the United States.

Both these incidents offered greater insight into the candidate's interests and abilities than the much reported one of Bush's failing a broadcast pop quiz on the names of some lesser-known foreign leaders. Of course, foreign policy played very little role in the campaign, but the immense responsibilities involved become unavoidable on the first day in office.

Bush's promise to make his first appointment Colin Powell as secretary of state seemed aimed at reassuring those concerned about the Texas governor's lack of knowledge and, the record suggests, even interest in foreign affairs. Powell is widely trusted in this country and well-regarded by many foreign leaders, particularly in Europe.

But about two months into the new administration, some very troubling developments suggest not only that Powell's position is being challenged but that it may be rather weak, with others directing the shape of American foreign policy. The others involved are closely identified with the kind of politicians who brag about not traveling abroad.

Indeed, an unprecedented attack on the credentials of a new secretary of state, called "Behind the Myth," recently appeared in two national publications, Newsweek and MSNBC. This is not the kind of piece that appears innocently, without containing important political signals.

This publication came at a time of some embarrassing public reverses of statements made by Secretary of State Powell. More importantly, it came at a time of a series of disquieting actions and statements by President Bush about some key areas of foreign policy.

Perhaps the most disturbing of these is the case of North Korea. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, winner of the Noble Peace Prize for his "sunshine" policy in seeking rapprochement with North Korea, by all reports left his March 7 meeting with Bush dismayed. President Bill Clinton certainly had his failures in foreign policy, but his administration's work with Kim in trying to end the dangerous isolation of North Korea was a bright spot.

The day before that meeting, Powell made a statement which included the words, ". . . we do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton left off. . . ." After Kim's meeting – a meeting, incidentally, that Powell left early – the secretary made a much less moderate statement which included the words, "There was some suggestion that imminent negotiations [with North Korea] are about to begin – that is not the case." On March 24, Powell was telling newspaper editors, ". . . some of the things . . . on the table are not ready to be picked up. . . ."

Kim was put off balance at the start of the meeting by administration references to reports that South Korea supported Russia's position on America's proposed national missile defense, reports that Kim says are incorrect. Bush also referred to North Korea's not keeping its existing "agreements." But there is only one agreement with North Korea and, as an administration spokesman admitted later, there is ". . . no evidence that North Korea is not complying with that. . . ."

This brief, awkwardly handled meeting has already had ill effects. Kim's prestige is reduced. North Korea has made angry noises after a period of markedly more open behavior. The European Union, deeply concerned about developments, is sending its own mediators to the Koreas. Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, which led to the successful reunification of East and West Germany and which Kim's "sunshine" policy resembles, is fondly remembered by Europeans.

Following his Camp David meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush read from notes approved by Powell that included Blair's assurance that the European Union's proposed multinational force would not conflict with NATO. Shortly afterward, the administration strongly stated its concern that just the opposite was true. This last word on the issue was the work of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Powell, on his recent trip to the Middle East, voiced interest in exploring ways to replace existing harsh sanctions on Iraq with ones focused on Iraqi weapons-building capacity. This policy line is more in keeping with the views of virtually the entire Arab world and views in Europe. Fairly quickly after, Rumsfeld's deputy secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, warned European diplomats not to take Powell's words as the administration's view, with regard to both sanctions on Iraq and the European Union's multinational force.

To a certain extent, Powell's treatment resembles that accorded Christine Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, another moderate voice in the administration. The president abruptly reversed a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants shortly after Whitman had stressed the commitment at a meeting of the Group of Eight. This reversal, too, has foreign policy implications since other advanced countries and signatories to the Kyoto Protocol already regard the United States as remiss in taking any responsibility for global warming.

There has been much written already about divided counsel in the new Cabinet, but there is always divided counsel in cabinets. What appears to be going on here is something more than that. Cheney and Rumsfeld seem determined to control the direction of foreign policy, leaving Powell the role of friendly face to the world. How long this can last with a man of Powell's demonstrated integrity is anyone's guess.

As regards Russia, Rumsfeld has gone out of his way with unsupported public charges of weapons proliferation, presumably forgetting the world's largest exporter of armaments is the United States, and name-calling about "corruption" to sour relations. The recent meeting of a fairly high-level American diplomat with a Chechen representative shortly after a bloody series of terrorist bombings by Chechens in southern Russia appeared a calculated insult in Russian eyes.

Bush's mass expulsion of Russian diplomats, along with Rumsfeld's rhetoric, provides us with a sudden rush of Cold War déjà vu. Even the CIA is known generally to oppose such expulsions since they always result, as they did in this case, in an least equal loss to our intelligence capacity in Russia. But one suspects the desire of Bush to put forward a "tough-guy" image here, and with hard-bitten cold warriors like Rumsfeld, it may be truly impossible to think in terms other than devils and angels, evil empire and shining city on a hill. Needless to say, in a globalized, interdependent world, a little more sophisticated and subtle thinking is demanded.

Bush has gone out of his way to stress the view that our relationship with China is best characterized as that of "strategic competitor" rather than that of partnership suggested by Clinton. Hopefully, the shift toward negatively tinged rhetoric reflects little change in substance toward this extremely important country. If you begin checking the stickers on merchandise in stores, you will see that a major portion of the well-made and moderately priced goods we buy today are made in China. This immense trade is something that benefits both countries in many ways, even with regard to our wish to see democratic government emerge in China. It is the story of civilization since the Renaissance that growth and prosperity produce a middle class, and it is the existence of a middle class that makes democracy not just possible but unavoidable.

When the Navy EP-3E Aries reconnaissance plane landed in China last week, early administration statements were shrill, threatening to turn an unhappy incident into a crisis, but restraint has since prevailed. In fact, the United States is on weak ground here. Despite our claims of "sovereign immunity," no nation in the world treats an uninvited military or intelligence-gathering plane as it would an embassy. When a Russian defector flew a MiG-25 to Japan in 1976, the Russians received the plane back weeks later, only after it literally had been taken apart and studied by American technicians. The Navy plane had, moreover, been involved in a fatal midair collision. The Chinese are obliged to investigate, including questioning the crew. Finally, Chinese officials have remained calm despite the intense provocation these spy flights represent. Americans should reflect on how our military would treat regular flights along our coast by Chinese, or say Cuban, intelligence planes.

Rumsfeld has always represented the "America-should-go-it-on-its-own" crowd that is on close terms with politicians who brag of never setting foot outside the United States. Cheney, too, is associated with this crowd. His congressional voting record is extreme, including as it does his vote against a congressional resolution calling on the formerly apartheid South Africa to free Nelson Mandela after many, many years in prison. The American people may not have voted for extreme policies – why else Bush's many promises to appoint Powell? – but it is beginning to appear that that is exactly what they've got.

John Chuckman, a free-lance writer who lives in Portland, Maine, is a retired chief economist for Texaco Canada.

Copyright © 2001 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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