New Foreign Policy Directions - like Harry Truman, George W. Bush Has Been Forced to Shoulder Tremendous Problems outside America

By Montville, Joseph V. | The World and I, February 2002 | Go to article overview

New Foreign Policy Directions - like Harry Truman, George W. Bush Has Been Forced to Shoulder Tremendous Problems outside America


Montville, Joseph V., The World and I


When George W. Bush entered the White House on January 20, 2001, he was perhaps the least exposed president to the outside world in more than 100 years. As a not quite two-term governor of an inland state, the newly inaugurated president had not traveled to Europe even as a student. His military service during Vietnam was limited to the Air National Guard, and a trip to China several years earlier had been as a dutiful son visiting his dad, who happened to be the U.S. ambassador to Beijing at the time. George W. was thoroughly Texan. The president was neither an internationalist nor a cosmopolitan. In fact, he openly shared his unhappy memories of Yale, where he had gone to college.

The culture in New Haven was snobbish and disdainful of people who identified with the South and rural America. The idea of vacationing in London, Paris, or Rome seemed not to attract him, perhaps for the same reason. Where he came from, people did not put much store in knowledge of the world outside the United States. As his fellow Texan, House Majority Leader Dick Armey once told the press, "I've been to Europe once. That was enough."

Aftermath of 'Terrible Tuesday'

But the terrorist attacks on September 11 ended forever President Bush's emphasis on domestic affairs and caused him to focus with a single-minded intensity on punishing the perpetrators of the worst one- day assault on Americans at home since the Civil War. His new cause as the chief defender of Americans required him to immerse himself in international diplomacy and coalition building.

That terrible Tuesday in September will define, for better or worse, his administration's record in understanding, defining, and asserting its leadership in the outside world for the rest of his time in office. It will also inevitably create the framework for engagement in foreign affairs for Bush's successors.

It's important to recognize how much President Bush's early attitude toward international relations was shaped by his personality and Texas roots. While his grandfather, the late Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, and his father, George H.W. Bush, were eastern seaboard, Yankee Republicans, George W. had been bred through and through as a Texan, and he was proud of it. All of his presidential predecessors had some prior experience abroad: Bill Clinton as a Rhodes scholar; George H.W. Bush as vice president, CIA director, and ambassador; Ronald Reagan as a traveler and governor of the biggest Pacific Rim state; Jimmy Carter in the Navy; Richard Nixon as senator and vice president; Lyndon Johnson as Senate majority leader; John F. Kennedy in World War II and the Senate. George W. had no previous personal experience to draw upon with the national security agencies of State, Defense, and the CIA or the foreign affairs committees of Congress. He would need to build up his foreign policy skills one relationship at a time and, in due course, one crisis at a time.

At the outset, the new administration displayed a kind of neo- isolationism. While it did not turn its back on the outside world, it clearly was willing to go it alone if and when it pleased. Whatever its policies might be, they would be "not Clinton."

There would be no high-visibility involvement in foreign crises--the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being the prime example. While Bush received Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in March, he refused to see Palestinian Authority Chief Yasser Arafat, who had been the most frequent foreign visitor to the Clinton White House. The president treated the Israeli/Palestinian challenge like an invitation to dive into a scorpion pit.

The administration was quick to denounce the Kyoto treaty on coping with global warming. It stated its determination to get rid of the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty whether the Russians liked it or not. Many of our allies in Europe and Asia were shocked at what some called "cowboy" diplomacy. …

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