Bush setbacks at home may undercut role on world stage

Monday, November 14, 2005

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's slumping popularity at home may be taking a toll on his ability to exert influence overseas.

Just a few years ago, rival and allied nations alike fretted that a cocky Bush administration was attempting to impose its will around the world.

Such swagger is harder to find these days.

As Bush prepares to depart Monday on a trip to Asia, questions abound about the global consequences of a U.S. president hobbled by domestic setbacks.

In recent weeks, his administration has:

* Seen its proposal for a Western Hemisphere-wide free-trade pact torpedoed during Bush's trip to Latin America. Several other of his trade initiatives are in jeopardy, too.

* Failed to persuade the U.N. nuclear watchdog to refer Iran's suspect nuclear activities to the Security Council for possible penalties.

* Ran into more obstacles in six-country talks over North Korea's nuclear agenda.

* Clashed with major European allies which, for the first time, joined other countries in supporting a move to wrest administrative control over the Internet from the United States.

"Behind the scenes, there's a recognition that the United States is tied down somewhat in Iraq and preoccupied domestically, and that this is a tough time for the Bush administration," said Kurt Campell, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific during the Clinton administration.

"It comes at a time when China's stock is extremely high in Asia as a whole. There's a growing recognition that China has taken enormous advantage of the challenges facing the Bush administration, in Iraq and elsewhere, to consolidate its gains in Asia," said Campell, now with the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

In Europe, Bush's principal Iraq war partner, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is reeling from political woes of his own.

Presidents, most recently Bill Clinton, have drawn strength from foreign trips and basked in the approval of American-flag waving crowds. But Bush has drawn muted responses from many world leaders and a larger-than-usual share of anti-American demonstrations.

He never was particularly well-liked overseas, to begin with.

Now, allies might be even more emboldened in opposing positions staked out by the U.S. And antagonistic governments in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere might be less intimidated by Bush's threats, seeing how bogged down the U.S. is in Iraq.

"I think he is less scary to them," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution.

Iran and North Korea probably are less fearful than before that Bush might use pre-emptive military force against them to accomplish Iraq-style changes in rule, and so, too, are their neighbors, O'Hanlon suggested.

"South Korea, for example, might have worried before about a war with North Korea they did not want. And I think they're probably less worried about it now," he said.

The U.S. still wields enormous influence, of course, if only because it remains the sole military superpower and has the largest economy.

Some recent developments could work to Bush's advantage.

Statements by Iran's new president advocating the destruction of Israel, and recent terrorist attacks on civilians -- such as those last week in Jordan -- might help Bush rally more global support.

Bush's foreign policy agenda remains ambitious and includes the spread of democracy, but he may not have the resources or public support to carry it out. U.S. forces are spread thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the public appetite for additional foreign entanglements seems faint.

"At the moment, the administration appears to be trying to stabilize Iraq, destabilize Syria and denuclearize Iran all at the same time. Completely implausible. You can't possibly do all those things at the same time," said James Dobbins, a former Bush envoy to Afghanistan and veteran diplomat.

Dobbins, who now directs the Rand Corp.'s defense policy center, cautions against prematurely counting out Bush's diplomacy.

"Administrations have recovered from worse setbacks than the current administration has suffered," he said. "The administration has still got three years of possibilities for considerable scope."

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.

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