Mon, 11 Jun 2001

The art of managing President George W. Bush

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): You have to admit that it's odd. There is not a single leader of any major foreign power who thinks that U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policies -- particularly on missile defense and global warming -- are sensible. Indeed, most of them believe that if he carries on down this road, it will mean political and environmental disaster. And yet they say little or nothing to condemn them publicly.

Take British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Just one day before he won re-election on June 7, there he was on the radio suggesting that Bush's plan for National Missile Defense (NMD) may be pretty sensible after all, given the threat from "rogue states" and nuclear proliferation and all that. Nobody imagines that he actually believes a word of this, but even on the eve of a resounding election victory, he felt obliged to say it.

Blair's emollient words about the technologically ludicrous and diplomatically dangerous "Son of Star Wars" plan is typical of the way world leaders have been dealing with the Bush administration. A shock went all around the world, for example, when President Bush simply denounced the Kyoto accord on "greenhouse gas" emissions, the one tangible sign of international progress in addressing the problem of global warming. Yet even then, most foreign leaders held their tongues.


You can't explain it by domestic political considerations. Men like Blair, Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien would win points at home for railing publicly against Bush's policies, and yet they choose not to. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin is remarkably reserved in his comments about U.S. policy. For a man who has annoyed and alarmed so many people in such a short time, Bush is getting a remarkably easy ride.

The free ride would have been guaranteed back in the Cold War, when America's major allies were so dependent on American military strength and political will for protection from the Soviet threat that their governments habitually kept their mouths shut in public about aspects of U.S. policy that troubled them. But that's all over now: there is no plausible threat.

So why do Blair and other Western leaders hide their true feelings about the Bush's policies, and even pretend to find some virtue in them?

One possibility is that the United States is so big and strong that it scares them, but that seems unlikely. The U.S. can be brutally unforgiving to poor nations that successfully defy it (ask the Cubans or the Iranians), but it is fairly tolerant of dissenting opinions from its friends. Which leaves two possibilities: that leaders like Tony Blair are simply spineless and craven -- or that they are being very tactical.

Suppose, for example, that Blair reasoned like this. The Bush administration will be very cross if we openly vilify it for these selfish and dangerous initiatives on defense and the environment, and it will find ways of making our lives more difficult in retaliation. Whereas if we just jolly Washington along for a while, it will probably all go away.

The National Missile Defense project, for example, will almost certainly lose momentum before it becomes a major threat to global strategic stability. It exists mainly as a pretext for giving the administration's friends in defense industry a lot of public money as a reward for their support during the election campaign, and that can be accomplished without deploying much of the hardware. Research and development is more lucrative anyway.

Meanwhile, the Russians can be mollified by some American purchases of missile interceptors from them, and the Chinese can be calmed with private assurances that this project isn't really going anywhere dangerous. Future phases of "Star Wars" will have much more trouble getting through the budgetary process now that Republicans no longer control the Senate, after all, and meanwhile the bulk of the U.S. armed forces will be working hard to sabotage NMD because it steals money from their own pet projects.

So there's no need for Blair to lie down in the road in front of this juggernaut yet, even if that were his natural inclination. Much the same goes for the Bush administration's policy (or lack of one) on climate change.

A lot of Bush's pro-oil industry plans for solving the fictitious U.S. "energy crisis" are just going to die in Congress now that the balance of power there has shifted. As for Kyoto, most people in the international energy industry think that Bush's rejection of the climate change treaty is just a ploy to win time for the U.S. oil industry giants to catch up with their foreign rivals.

If the Kyoto accord went into effect today, most of the hugely profitable business of selling new technologies to help countries meet the new standards for emissions would go to firms like BP and Royal Dutch/Shell, which are several years ahead of their U.S. rivals in developing these technologies.

On this analysis, Bush is really only calling a cynical time- out to win time for U.S. industry to catch up technologically before those standards are imposed.

So it makes no sense for foreign leaders to jump up and down and wave their knickers in the air. They might as well save their breath and let events take their course: They have realized that Bush is neither as dangerous or as stupid as he seems.