See George. See George Learn Foreign Policy: After Offending U.S. Allies, Bush Hits the Books as He Heads off to a Skeptical Europe

Newsweek, June 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

See George. See George Learn Foreign Policy: After Offending U.S. Allies, Bush Hits the Books as He Heads off to a Skeptical Europe


It was a private tutorial for the president, in the living room of the White House residence. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national-security adviser and chief tutor on foreign policy, had already trooped a procession of heads of state and foreign ministers through the Oval Office to contribute to the education of George W. Bush. Now, on May 31, she assembled a coterie of foreign-policy experts drawn from outside the administration, including her handpicked Russian expert, Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution; Democratic investment banker Felix Rohatyn, who served as Bill Clinton's ambassador to France; British author and Europeanist Timothy Garton Ash, and journalist Lionel Barber, a European specialist at the Financial Times. The visitors were sworn to secrecy, in part to avoid the impression that Bush needed remedial training, but several participants described the meeting to NEWSWEEK.

Over soft drinks, his visitors warned the president that the allies were complaining about the new administration's "unilateralism," America's apparent determination to go it alone in the world. Bush acknowledged he had "gotten off on the wrong foot" with the Europeans, and in a rare reference to his father's presidency he talked about fulfilling No. 41's vision of a Europe "whole and free." But the president was adamant about his intention to push ahead with missile defense. "He was like Reagan," one participant said, "but without the charisma."

Bush, who has traveled to Europe only a few times (the White House refused to say exactly how many), is hardly the first presidential innocent abroad. Ronald Reagan thumbed through a National Geographic picture book before his first trip to China in 1984. It can be a mistake to underestimate Bush, as his political foes have discovered at home. And in picking his cabinet, Bush was confident and shrewd enough to surround himself with strong-willed and experienced Washington players. But he has had trouble balancing big egos and big ideas. With the president somewhat unschooled in foreign affairs, his administration has lurched about on the world stage as two key lieutenants, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have fought a tug of war to dominate policy. The result has been even more incoherence than allies have come to expect from Washington since the cold war ended. An administration that came into office promising a new "humility" has gone from playing the bully--showing disdain for treaties and international institutions during the first few months--to more recently scrambling to placate disgruntled allies.

The referee in this heavyweight matchup between Powell and Rumsfeld is Condi Rice. At 46, the former Stanford provost may not seem to have the presence or the reputation for ruthless infighting of her male colleagues. But, more significant perhaps, she has George Bush's ear as well as his respect. Accustomed to relying on forceful women--his wife, his mother, his communications czar Karen Hughes--Bush is obviously comfortable with Rice. The president routinely invites his national-security adviser to Camp David or to his Texas ranch for the weekend. The two have common interests: Bush's friends say only half-jokingly that his retirement job will be Major League Baseball commissioner; Rice has said on several occasions that she'd like to run the NFL. She is self-effacing, discreet and loyal, essential features in a Bush aide. She is also a "control freak," says a prominent GOP defense expert, carefully vetting what the president hears and whom he sees on foreign affairs. Former secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to be put out over his limited contact with Bush now that the Republicans have retaken the White House.

Under Rice's supervision, Bush's foreign policy really had only one unifying theme in its first five months: not Clinton. The new administration, the most conservative since Reagan's, was determined to end the vacillation and lack of discipline it saw in Bush's predecessor. …

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