Eye on the Empire
by Alan Bock

March 21, 2001

Toward a Less Intrusive Foreign Policy?

It is possible to view events this week as evidence that an administration that has evinced little passionate interest in foreign policy, assuming office after a campaign in which foreign policy played almost no role in the debates or the outcome, could be drawn inexorably into deeper involvement in some of the many crises around the world. But it might also be the case that the administration is handling this week’s events so as to limit its future commitments. It will be fascinating to see how events play out.

Even with the media love affair with John McCain’s silly campaign for campaign finance "reform" in full bloom, foreign visitors and foreign crises have pushed their way forward to capture at least some media attention. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have been in town, and a top Chinese official is due in Thursday. The war in Macedonia/Kosovo is definitely heating up, and if officials are calling for more NATO forces calls for more intensive U.S. involvement can hardly be far behind.


And yet, much of the intensive involvement in foreign affairs this week can also be explained by the fact that President Bush is still relatively new in office and is bound to undergo a fairly intensive introduction to the issues and personalities that, for better or worse, any US president will at least have to know about, whether the US is involved directly or not. The important thing is whether the get-acquainted sessions lead to more US involvement or interference.

So far, at least, many of the early signals suggest an administration lacking a fervent desire to increase US involvement or impose U.S.-dictated outcomes on various conflicts. Whether these early signals will be followed through consistently is another question.


Monday’s meeting between President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori amounted to a get-acquainted "grip and grin." Both leaders murmured reassuring sounds to the effect that their economic plans will pull their respective countries out of the economic doldrums any day now.

It’s not like the old days, when most commentators viewed the two countries as twin economic colossi holding the keys to the world’s economic future. In some ways a low-key meeting between the United States and Japan, in which the sufficiency of apologies for a submarine accident is the main issue on the table even though Mr. Bush was quick to remind everybody that the two countries produce 40 percent of the world’s GDP is refreshing.


The main reason this was a summit with little drama had to do with Mr. Mori’s tenuous status in domestic Japanese politics. The prime minister, as Cato Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Carpenter told me on the telephone, is "barely warming the seat" of power in Japan. Hampered by recent mistakes and gaffes, Mr. Mori has an almost-invisible 8 percent approval rating in the polls and has already announced that he plans to step down.

The Liberal Democratic Party, of which Mr. Mori is at least the titular leader for now, and which has ruled Japan since the end of World War II, might even be on the verge of breaking up.


At the same time, even though the Bush administration has said that attention to Japan will be a linchpin of its emerging policies toward Asia and it was proper protocol to meet with the Japanese leader before meeting with a Chinese deputy prime minister later this week, Japan is clearly less important to the United States than once it was. Its economy has been in the doldrums for more than a decade even as the US economy has soared (until quite recently). And while the long-range intentions of the mainland Chinese continue to be worth pondering, there is no immediate crisis in Asia that seems to cry out for US attention.


It is almost difficult to remember now those palmy days, 15 years ago or so, when the Japanese model of government-guided economic growth was viewed as unbeatable, invincible, and inevitable. Remember when Americans were worrying about the Japanese buying up American icons? The Nippon hordes, brimming in through Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, seemed to some to be on the verge of dominating the US economy.

As events developed, however, the Japanese model has entrenched so many special interests with political influence that it has been virtually impossible to restructure and deregulate the economy, even as the economy has stagnated for years.

While spokespersons said the leaders and relevant undersecretaries talked economics intensively, both sides refrained from public lectures, aside from a prim little reminder from President Bush that Japan can’t expect to grow out of this crisis through an export-led strategy (which has been the Japanese way since about the late 1950s). Even that warning was vague, backed by no agreement or sanctions, and not included in the oh-so-proper two-page statement the two leaders released after their meeting.


It’s worth remembering that Japan’s economy has been stagnant rather than in the kind of downward spiral Russia has experienced. Japan will continue to be economically important to the United States, and individual American and Japanese companies will continue to do business. But the political stakes are not as high as once they were and maybe that’s not a bad development.

At any rate, if the Bush administration does want to reduce American involvement in Asia, the dicey status of the Mori government gave it the opportunity either to think about matter a little longer, or to send signals that even the next Japanese government will have to muddle through on its own. The meeting was diplomatically proper but (given that I’m not privy to the private conversations) apparently devoid of very much substance. Good.


Now that Ariel Sharon has joined the head-of-state club and successfully formed a coalition government as prime minister of Israel, top US officials including President Bush met with him, spoke cordially and posed for smiling photographs. But both Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush seemed to be sending signals that the United States will not be as intensively some might say manically involved in trying to micromanage the peace process as was the case toward the end of the Clinton administration.

"The United States stands ready to assist, not insist" on progress toward a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement, said Colin Powell after meeting with Mr. Sharon on Monday. On Tuesday President Bush told reporters: "I told him [Sharon] that our nation will not try to force peace, that we will facilitate peace and we will work with those responsible for peace."


Reuters news service called the president’s remarks "a sharp departure from the US approach under his predecessor." Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute told me he gets the impression that most of the Bush foreign policy team is convinced that former President Clinton’s intensely personal involvement in negotiations, from Camp David forward, was a profound mistake, and may even have contributed to the violence, conflict and killing that have bedeviled the region for the last six months.

Both President Bush and Secretary Powell, while echoing Sharon’s call for an end to violence before serious new negotiations can be expected, suggested that Israel lift the economic embargo on Palestinian regions in the West Bank and Gaza that has contributed to economic collapse and the growth of a sense of hopelessness.

If the administration is genuinely determined to scale back direct US involvement in Israeli-Palestinian issues this is good news. As former Jerusalem Post United Nations bureau chief Leon Hadar has argued, with the end of the Cold War the Arab-Israeli conflict can be said to have been "de-internationalized."


The United States obviously hopes for a peaceful outcome, but imposing an outcome is not a core national interest. As the conflict is recognized as one of many localized ethnic conflicts around the world, the US will be able to treat it "with a certain benign neglect," Mr. Hadar wrote.

Reducing the urgency to get credit for a settlement can have advantages. With a less direct stake in the outcome the United States can be a more dispassionate, objective observer, closer to an "honest broker" than it has been in the past. Over the long run, that might even be a more constructive role for this country.

It might be nice to see an American leader disavow any intention to continue being involved in the Middle East, telling the two scorpions in the bottle to call when somebody wins or both sides are ready to acknowledge a stalemate. But these are diplomats and politicians, and you can expect only so much from the breed. It will be important to keep watching the Bushies and to remember that in conflicts ranging from Iraq to Colombia they have not yet shown evidence of having salutary second thoughts.

But for this week, with these issues, they haven’t done badly.

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