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U.S. Arrives at Crossroads of Foreign Policy

The administration in the next 18 months is more likely to favor compromise than confrontation in response to global crises.

August 03, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Whether proposing token involvement in a peacekeeping force for Liberia or pushing multi-party talks with North Korea, the Bush administration's approach to global hot spots during the next 18 months is likely to offer a striking contrast to its muscular solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Washington's focus has already begun to shift from fighting high-stakes wars to developing exit strategies for U.S. troops. Instead of costly interventions, the United States is looking to manage new foreign crises through low-budget diplomacy.

The administration contends that there is no deliberate change. "Our actions fit the specific facts of each case -- and each situation is different," a National Security Council official said.

Other officials say that Washington is merely back to traditional business, after a detour spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We're just getting back to the big agenda the administration outlined when it came into office -- spreading democracy, expanding free trade and NATO, and funding for AIDS," a senior State Department official said.

Yet, barring another major attack, several factors will rein in foreign policy initiatives until the end of 2004, say U.S. officials and foreign policy experts.

The looming presidential campaign season is part of the reason.

"From this point on, the main foreign policy player is not the Pentagon or the State Department, it's Karl Rove in the White House," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "Every foreign policy decision and initiative will be screened through the prism of the electoral process.

"The main battle for the White House now is with U.S. voters. Whatever is happening in the rest of the world is secondary," he said.

The lengthy decision-making process over what to do in Liberia is a prime example, particularly noticeable on the heels of President Bush's visit to Africa last month in which he emphasized his concern about the continent. Of the more than 50 African countries, Liberia is the only one with historic U.S. ties, having been settled in 1822 by freed American slaves.

"This kind of crisis is a bellwether of the larger issue," said Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace, a Washington think tank.

"The indecision and hesitancy that Bush has shown on Liberia may be indicative of hesitancy and indecision and even ambivalence on other foreign policy issues as we approach the election," she said.

But public exhaustion and anxiety over U.S. vulnerability abroad, a military now stretched thin and tough budget realities have also become constraints that are likely to dictate caution for the administration until the election, officials concede.

"There's no money, no soldiers, no ammunition and no political will for another foreign adventure," Naim said.

Even in an era of globalization, the interventionist agenda of President Woodrow Wilson is just as controversial among Americans in the 21st century as it was eight decades ago, analysts say.

"Bush is confronting a basic reality about U.S. foreign policy. Wilsonians, whether neoconservatives on the right or internationalists on the left, are always writing checks that the American public does not want to honor," said Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Bush is sort of aware that while he can still count on strong support for interventions that are security related and necessary, he does not have infinite support for humanitarian intervention hither and yon," Mead said.

Even with the world's mightiest military, the United States still has limits on what it can do alone, said James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration.

Roughly two-thirds of the active U.S. military brigades are deployed overseas, with some troops doing multiple tours of duty. "You can't run the engine that fast and that many revolutions per minute for that long without taking a break," Steinberg said.

As a result, the go-it-alone strategies independent of the United Nations are being replaced or supplemented by collaboration with international institutions and regional groups, say U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts.

In Liberia, the new international peacekeeping force is led by a West African bloc, backed by the United States and supported by the U.N., which is due to take over the task in October. The North Korea talks, negotiated by China, will include four Asian powers as well as the United States.

Bush's flexibility in foreign policy may be further limited by the controversy over alleged weapons of mass destruction, the casus belli for the Iraq war, which has challenged the administration's credibility.

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