By Stan Crock As a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, President George W. Bush should know what three strikes mean. That's the count against him right now in foreign policy. His Administration basically caved in to Saddam Hussein on sanctions against Iraq. Bush ineptly handled the recent visit of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. And his flip-flop on carbon-dioxide emissions -- a key issue in the global-warming debate -- made the Bush team look more like nervous rookies than the veteran All Stars they're supposed to be in foreign policy. Time for W. to go back to the dugout and think about his next at-bat.
Take "smart sanctions" -- the clever moniker the Bush team slapped on weaker trade curbs with Iraq. Never would such things happen on his watch, Bush declared during the Presidential campaign. The Bush team vowed to get tough on Saddam, after years of weak-kneed vacillation by President Clinton -- or so they claimed. They would once again stiffen allied resolve against Saddam and even help Iraqi dissidents oust the ruthless dictator. And fact is, Bush's promises on Iraq were credible: W.'s Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when George Bush Sr. went to war to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and Vice-President Richard Cheney was his Defense Secretary.
It took but a few weeks for the new Bush team to make the mistakes it claimed it would avoid. Instead of squeezing Saddam, the Administration is opting for easing commercial trade with Iraq. The rationale: Any blame for continued suffering by the Iraqi people would now shift to Saddam. But the Clinton Administration said the same thing, noting that Saddam wasn't spending all the money available for food and medicine. Justifiable as that argument may be, most people just smirked and shrugged.
UNDERMINING AN ALLY. In fact, though a battle continues to rage in the Bush Administration between the smart-sanctions faction and those holding out for Saddam's ouster, smart sanctions may be the best Bush can do. That's because the coalition that took on Iraq a decade ago is no longer willing to back a strong sanctions policy. The Bush team has only itself to blame for the inflated expectations it built up during the campaign about reforging the sanctions alliance. The episode suggests that the Bush foreign policy folks are out of touch with the allies and don't know how to establish the credibility they correctly argue is so critical in international affairs.
The situation went further downhill during the visit in early March of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bolster ties with North Korea. Secretary of State Colin Powell pleased the visiting delegation from Seoul by saying the U.S. would pick up the negotiations with North Korea where the Clinton Administration had left off. No way, the President declared the next day. By suggesting the North may be violating agreements, Bush undermined Kim's policy of openly embracing the North Koreans, which has helped reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Not exactly the way to support a key ally.
The problem goes even deeper, though. When Bush aides were asked to clarify Bush's comments, they bungled the flub further. A White House official said Bush was talking about future agreements -- though he didn't use that term. That's just the way Bush talks -- he isn't precise, was the gist of the response.
LOST LEVERAGE. Another Administration official chimed in: While there is no evidence that Pyongyang is violating its agreement with the U.S. to halt its nuclear program, there is likewise no evidence that it is complying either. Quite a pair of diplomatic loop-de-loops. If the Bushies had their act together, they would have realized they just needed to be more plainspoken: Pyongyang has welched on promises to repay billions of dollars of borrowed money, and it also is violating inspection requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, according to the conservative Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. But why not keep the talks going? Puzzled Europeans -- not knowing if the Administration is ignorant, bumbling, or both -- now are sending their own diplomatic delegation to the Korean Peninsula to try to mend fences.
Equally worrisome was Bush's next swing: his decision to abandon his campaign pledge to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant and reduce emissions of the gas blamed for global warming. The switch, after heavy lobbying by affected industries and Republican conservatives on Capitol Hill, was largely viewed as a domestic issue. But the flip-flop had enormous international implications and showed the Bush team has an unsure diplomatic touch. Many nations, especially European allies, back the Kyoto global-warming accord, which would require reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The Clinton Administration always had a clever way of winning concessions on the issue. Officials would tell the Europeans: "We love you guys, and we agree with you. But we've got these yahoos in Congress we've got to deal with, and you've got to give us something for them." Not a bad negotiating strategy.
Alas, the Bush team wasn't as adept. After a meeting at The Hague last year broke up because of differences over how to implement the Kyoto accord, the time was perfect for the U.S. to extract even more concessions. Rejecting any reductions, and the agreement, out of hand, Bush lost his leverage for that gambit. Now the President is likely to get an earful from German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on both global warming and Korea when they meet in Washington on Mar. 29.
KEEPING IT SHORT. The best that can be said of Bush's performance to date is that some of his other foreign policy forays have been largely uneventful. The meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen were mercifully brief. Since even the President's small talk with foreign leaders on the phone is scripted, the Administration is making a virtue out of necessity in minimizing the untutored Bush's foreign policy dealings.
And the expulsion of 50 Russian spies, an attempt to swing for the fences, was just a long, foul ball. Bush would have been better off kicking out fewer Russians. That would have gotten Moscow's attention. Then he could have quietly negotiated a deal for reducing the size of Moscow's spy operation over time and achieved the same goal without the friction.
Maybe Bush will get better with more playing time. But on foreign policy, the long, tall team from Texas isn't even playing AA ball. Fortunately, it's still the early innings. But if things don't improve fast, bush league may take on a whole new meaning. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online