The speech U.S. President George W. Bush delivered to a joint session of Congress last Tuesday was disappointing because it said little about the basic strategy the new U.S. administration intends to follow in the area of foreign policy and security. The speech focused on domestic and economic policies, particularly Mr. Bush’s election promise of a $1.6-trillion, 10-year tax cut.
The address, his first to a joint congressional session since his inauguration Jan. 20, was not the State of the Union message. Still, the absence of a clear-cut diplomatic and security strategy is disquieting, particularly at a time when the Japan-U.S. alliance is under strain following a series of recent unfortunate incidents, most notably the accidental sinking of a Japanese fisheries training vessel by a U.S. nuclear submarine off Hawaii. There are also worrying signs in U.S. relations with China and North Korea.
Since taking office, Mr. Bush has been trying hard to make his peace with the Democratic Party following the bruising vote count and recount in Florida that finally won him the race. The president has mounted a charm offensive, inviting such Democratic luminaries as Sen. Edward Kennedy to the White House. In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Bush also struck a conciliatory note, saying, “Bipartisanship is more than minding our manners — it is doing our duty.”
As regards the tax-cut plan, which foes say is too large and friends say is too small, he said it is “just right,” trying to reach out to middle-of-the-roaders on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle. Moreover, in a public gesture reminiscent of his predecessor, President Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush invited the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, Mr. John F. Street, to the joint session, praised the good works of community groups, and defended a doubling of funding for a national health institute, mentioning by name a Democratic congressman who had braved cancer to attend the session. And in a sign of policy accommodation, Mr. Bush gave priority to public education, health care for the elderly, social-security retirement payments and environmental protection.
However, Mr. Bush did not use eloquent phrases like “leading the world,” as Mr. Clinton used to do. The overall impression is that he spelled out a menu of specific policies methodically and in plain language as if reading from a prepared text.
The address did inspire occasional applause from both parties, but the tax-relief package drew criticism from both House and Senate leaders of the Democratic Party, who said it would benefit the richest 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers. In a recent Washington Post poll, Mr. Bush scored a popular-approval rating of only 55 percent — the lowest in 50 years for a newly elected president. Unlike Mr. Clinton, who secured popular support despite his blunders and escapades, Mr. Bush seems to suffer a certain lack of charisma. The New York Times says America is headed for an uncertain and confrontational period.
Mr. Bush also faces a range of pressing issues on the diplomatic and security front. In his speech, he reiterated the need for a national missile defense shield to protect the United States from possible missile attacks by “rogue states” — a term the Clinton administration had replaced with the less offensive “states of concern.” Mr. Bush revived the old phrase, signaling a more confrontational stance against countries like North Korea and Iraq.
Such a get-tough policy is prone to risk. It has already drawn a critical reaction from the government of North Korea, which has warned that Pyongyang will not be bound by promises made to the previous U.S. administration, such as a pledge to suspend further missile firings.
The same day Mr. Bush delivered his speech to Congress, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to the South Korean Parliament, while in Tokyo a special U.S. envoy handed a letter of apology for the submarine accident from Mr. Bush to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. A Russia-South Korea summit communique supported the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which the Bush administration sees as an obstacle to its NMD plan. The statement said the treaty is “a cornerstone of strategic stability and an important foundation for international efforts on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.”
With Washington taking its time in establishing a diplomatic strategy, it appears that South Korea is inching closer to Russia on the NMD issue, while North Korea seems to be growing more skeptical about U.S. intentions. True, the Bush administration’s honeymoon period is not over yet, but in troubling times such as these a well-defined U.S. foreign-policy and security strategy is an urgent necessity.
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