Bush has come long way in world eye

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Six weeks ago, George W. Bush was still the new kid on the global block, widely perceived by his peers as a good-old-boy Texan grappling, and sometimes fumbling, with the sophisticated nuances of foreign policy.

He was under fire for his controversial missile defense plan, resented for his go-it-alone approach and challenged for doing too little or nothing on the Middle East conflict, nuclear testing, climate change, land mines, creation of an international criminal court, chemical weapons and children's rights.

Today, presidents, prime ministers, sultans, sheiks and kings defer to him. He has redefined the global agenda. And everyone wants to see him.

The shift has been the most striking part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum held here over the weekend. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who hosted the summit of 21 member economies, hoped it would highlight his nation's leadership and transformation, symbolized by changes in this bustling, gleaming city where he was once mayor. China's economy is one of the few in Asia to defy the odds, so far, of a global slump.

But the summit decidedly was Bush's show.

In a telling episode, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose country is one of America's closest allies and the world's second-largest economy, kept apologizing for taking up Bush's time Saturday during their one-hour bilateral meeting.

"I appreciate your strong leadership to fight terrorism. Your determination and patience, I appreciate," the prime minister said during a photo opportunity.

Koizumi also presented Bush with a decorative arrow used by Japanese warriors dating to the 6th century that, when shot, produces a sharp whistle signaling the onset of battle. On the wooden box containing the arrow, Koizumi personally inscribed, in calligraphy, "to defeat evil and bring peace on Earth."

One of the unexpected consequences of the Sept. 11 tragedy is that it has given the new American president a fresh start on foreign policy. It's a sort of second honeymoon with the world to revive a marriage that, U.S. officials concede, wasn't going all that well.

"At earlier meetings, he either had to overcome misconceptions or face the implication that people were going to teach him something about how the world works," said a senior U.S. official who has worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations. "He came to this meeting having stood up and established himself on the issue, where he's demonstrating U.S. leadership to a world that is looking for it."

The global challenge of terrorism has helped. The United States is a relative newcomer in dealing with terrorism on its own turf, though it has been a long-standing problem for many countries.

"The issue makes it easier to empathize with our objectives. Unlike missile defense, where we appear to be doing something to protect ourselves, this is something where other countries feel a broad common interest," said James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor in the Clinton administration and now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Bush is winning new respect in large part because of his reaction, which was to not go it alone. At least on terrorism, his approach has embraced the era and ideas of globalization.

"The people in this administration have gone from being serious unilateralists to being active multilateralists," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "Everyone sees that both Bush and [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell are on the phone constantly, consulting with other countries that are playing important roles in the new coalition."

The fact that one of the first things the Bush administration did after the Sept. 11 attacks was to make a long-delayed payment of dues to the United Nations helped prove its intent, Steinberg added.

Substantively, Bush also has scored points by not acting precipitously and devising a deliberate longer-term strategy to deal with terrorism, U.S. analysts and officials agree.

"The initial concept of response was that we were going to do what we did in the past -- blow some holes in something and maybe get some U.N. resolutions that these criminals had to be brought to justice," said a senior State Department official who asked to remain anonymous.

"But Bush said those things may have stopped a particular type of terrorism or changed the behavior of certain countries, but they didn't stop terrorism or make us any safer," the official added. "So he said we have to take this to the next level -- to move beyond retaliation to a long-term struggle to eliminate terrorism. And that meant getting everybody to do something, like choke off safe havens or close down financial networks, not just military actions."

For a man sometimes perceived as insensitive to other nations' concerns, Bush also publicly demonstrated sensitivity to an array of background issues, Steinberg said.

After initially bumbling by referring to the global effort against Islamic extremists as a "crusade," he subsequently stressed that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. He went to the Islamic Center of Washington on Sept. 17 to meet with Muslim leaders. And he included Muslims in official remembrances, speeches and public events.

To avoid the kind of political fallout that accompanied the Persian Gulf War against Iraq, the administration also began dropping bombs and food in Afghanistan at the same time, Steinberg noted.

Honeymoons always end, however, and the international support Bush is receiving is unlikely to be as cohesive or widespread indefinitely.

"It won't easily be sustained unless our strategy takes others' interests into account," said Les Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Most of the world is generally in sync about the Sept. 11 attacks, which offers the U.S. cover for the first phase of its war against Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida terrorism network and their Afghan hosts. But cooperation within the loosely knit coalition and support for the war on terrorism could face hurdles if or when the U.S. moves beyond Afghanistan.

"That's when we face a real hard trade-off between what we need to do to get their support for our [war on] terrorism and our values regarding other countries' treatment of political opposition," Gelb said.

Many countries have signed on to the coalition partly because of their own domestic problems. Russia's most serious security challenge is from Muslim guerrillas in its republic of Chechnya, while China faces Uighur Muslim militants in the western province of Xinjiang. Though Washington concedes that some Chechens and Uighurs have engaged in terrorism, the U.S. also has traditionally viewed both problems as political issues that grew out of repression of minorities and human rights violations.

Bush's legacy almost certainly will be determined by how his war turns out, analysts predict. But the verdict may not be in until long after he leaves office.

"Never forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall happened a few months after the Reagan administration ended. Similarly, the victory he engineered against the Soviet Union would now be perceived -- based on what we know about what else that process unleashed -- in a very different light," Naim said. "So no one should get carried away with either applause or criticism."

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