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Published on Tuesday, April 10, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
America-First Policies Dismay Europeans
Bush has revealed himself as a Middle American conservative unschooled in international diplomacy
by Mary Dejevsky
"GEORGE BUSH," said Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany after his White House meeting last week, "is a straightforward man."

Bluff, increasingly cocky as he gains confidence in office, but to a degree innocent in a Reaganesque way, the new president has impressed a string of foreign visitors, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his willingness to tell it like it is, from nuclear weapons in space to toothpaste.

The words may come out a little garbled, but everyone knows what he means.

.The difficulty is that as the weeks go by, the world according to George W. seems less and less congenial to those who must share it. What brought this home was the metaphorical two fingers he gratuitously raised to the Kyoto treaty on climate change. There was no reason for him to be so blatant in renouncing it.

The Clinton administration might have signed the treaty, but there was not the slightest chance of its being implemented. It would never have come to a U. S. Senate vote, let alone ratification. If he had to say something - and he did not - Bush could have mouthed some pleasantries about wanting to be a good team player, but being hobbled by Congress. No one would have turned a hair. Indeed, this is what Environmental Protection Agency Sirector Christine Todd Whitman advised him to do, citing the need to establish international goodwill at this early stage in his presidency.

Instead, he said straight out that he wanted to find some way of getting out of the commitment to cut greenhouse gases. Having shocked the world with that, he followed up 24 hours later with what he clearly saw as a justification, but was interpreted elsewhere as another two fingers.

"We're in an energy shortage here," he said. "We'll be working with our allies to reduce greenhouse gases, but I will not accept anything that will harm our economy and hurt our American workers."

So there we have it, a classic rendition of the old "America First" policy.

The world cannot say it had no warning. At no time during the protracted election campaign did Bush evince any great interest or enthusiasm for foreign cooperation. He promised "consultation" on many topics, including the much debated missile defense policy; he promised to show "respect" for other countries and their way of doing things and to leave them alone. But he did not promise collegiality in any form.

Since he took office, it is his vice president, Dick Cheney, and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who have emerged as most adept at bending his ear. Where there has been a choice between (1) a suspicious view of the world and (2) the "let's all try to get along together, we're all human after all" approach of Bill Clinton, Bush has opted for the former.

The administration angered the Russians by accusing them of nuclear proliferation through technology sales to Iran, then initiated a sweeping set of tit-for-tat spy expulsions reminiscent of the Cold War. Bush told the Chinese vice premier that he had not quite made up his mind about new weapons sales to Taiwan, but China's view would be neither here nor there. And he told the president of South Korea, Kim Dae Jung, that he would not sign up to further rapprochement with the North.

Because Bush's first high-profile policy reversal was on the environment, the explanation favored by American liberals was the debt he was perceived to owe to "special interests" - the big companies that had so generously bankrolled his presidential campaign. This was the explanation picked up, and pilloried, in much of the developed world when he went back on his campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, citing the cost to U.S. business and consumers.

The real reasons why Bush is acting as he is, however, are probably different and, from a European perspective, more worrying. He is acting out of conviction; he is simply behaving as the ideological conservative that he is, an unsophisticated Middle American conservative not well-versed in the diplomatic arts, but convinced that his heart is in the right place.

The primacy accorded to U.S. business - the embodiment of "free enterprise" - is just one aspect of that overall philosophy.

Bush makes no bones about being a conservative. But he purports to see himself as representative of the mainstream. In Europe, this may be hard to comprehend. But the political center in America is very much further to the right than it is in Europe, and in the aftermath of Bill Clinton's presidency, Bush is probably correct - for the moment. His environmental U-turn raised scarcely a murmur of condemnation in the United States, except from predictable fringe organizations. The prevailing response was "Good on yer, George W."

Like it or not, this is the face the world must adjust to. There is just a hint, though, that Americans may be starting to have second thoughts. Ominously for Bush, his already mediocre popularity ratings have slid in the past month, and negative opinion has hardened.

He says he doesn't pay attention to polls and insisted before he took office that their findings would have no place in the Oval Office. Maybe, but you can bet they are causing some scurrying elsewhere in the White House.

Mary Dejevsky wrote this commentary for the Independent of London.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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