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Jewish World Review April 20, 2001 / 27 Nissan, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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The world closes in -- AS George W. Bush struggles to formulate a coherent foreign policy, he faces the same major obstacle his predecessor did in the first months of his administration - public apathy except in a time of crisis.

Voter disinterest in international affairs has become so palpable since the end of the Cold War it has given life to a new isolationism at the same time that startling progress in communications, namely the Internet, has linked the earth's disparate peoples and stimulated a truly global economy.

At the beginning of his White House tenure, Bill Clinton determined that an overwhelming majority of Americans really only cared about domestic problems in times of peace, a belief sustained by his defeat of former President Bush, who received extraordinary marks in foreign policy but low approval for his handling of domestic affairs. Clinton won election on Bush's seeming lack of concern for those affected by what turned out to be only a mild downturn in the economy.

Clinton's immediate answer was to push overseas matters behind a wall of domestic initiatives, foremost among them the unsuccessful attempt to overhaul the nation's health care system. It was a task that, of course, proved as difficult as achieving peace in the Middle East, at which he also failed.

Bush started in the same direction, assigning a major tax cut as the administration's number one priority and showing little interest in setting out broad global policy, even indicating that the United States would be less involved in what was occurring between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

This slowness in developing specific plans caused initial confusion not only among America's allies but also among Bush's own foreign policy experts who at times sounded as though they weren't on the same team. For instance, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated publicly that the Bush administration would pick up where Clinton left off on the question of North Korean missiles only to have to backtrack because the president at the same time was telling the South Korean president that Bush intended to go much slower than Clinton.

But unlike Clinton, who had time to spare before facing a major foreign policy dilemma, Bush has been thrust early into an overseas crisis of major magnitude, the China affair. While his immediate handling of the situation has received high marks and quieted charges that he hasn't the intellectual capacity or expertise for broad foreign policy success, observers feel that it is only the beginning of a long series of crucial questions he must deal with in U.S. relations with China, centering mainly on the defense of Taiwan. Sooner than later he must develop overall specific guidelines.

There is a natural inclination for this former Texas governor to look south, toward Mexico and Latin America, in his foreign policy considerations. His main initiative and one of great importance would be the furtherance of an open trade policy in this hemisphere, ranging from Canada through South America and the Caribbean , much along the lines of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The proposed arrangement targeted for 2005 would encompass 800 million people, the largest free trade zone in the world.

"Nothing we do...will be more important or have a greater long-term impact," Bush declared in a speech to the Organization of American States (OAS) before leaving for a summit of the participating hemispheric governments in Quebec over the weekend.

Here it really gets sticky. The one foreign policy area outside of potential military threat that does tweak the interest of a large number of Americans is trade. The serious impediment to the adoption of sweeping open trade and the approval of the free trade zone is the growing concern about the loss of jobs here. Big labor has joined with conservation groups to oppose treaties with countries they claim care little about the environment. But Latin states mainly have opposed including environmental concerns in trade negotiations, charging that it is an attempt by others to dictate their domestic policies.

Labor's concerns are rightfully regarded as a subterfuge for job protection. The union opposition doesn't make Bush's job in selling trade legislation to Congress easy, but Bush is determined to push ahead.

While Bush has a different, less personally involved style than Clinton, more and more of his time will be spent on international affairs. The facts on the ground, as former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton recently told reporters, will dictate that and drive the response. Getting Americans interested is another matter.

William Randolph Hearst once said Americans will do anything for South America except read about it. Unfortunately, that pretty much applies to world events generally these days.

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