It was a private tutorial for the president, in the living room of the White House residence. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national-security adviser and chief tutor on foreign policy, had already trooped a procession of heads of state and foreign ministers through the Oval Office to contribute to the education of George W. Bush. Now, on May 31, she assembled a coterie of foreign-policy experts drawn from outside the administration, including her handpicked Russian expert, Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution; Democratic investment banker Felix Rohatyn, who served as Bill Clinton's ambassador to France; British author and Europeanist Timothy Garton Ash, and journalist Lionel Barber, a European specialist at the Financial Times. The visitors were sworn to secrecy, in part to avoid the impression that Bush needed remedial training, but several participants described the meeting to NEWSWEEK.
Over soft drinks, his visitors warned the president that the allies were complaining about the new administration's "unilateralism," America's apparent determination to go it alone in the world. Bush acknowledged he had "gotten off on the wrong foot" with the Europeans, and in a rare reference to his father's presidency he talked about fulfilling No. 41's vision of a Europe "whole and free." But the president was adamant about his intention to push ahead with missile defense. "He was like Reagan," one participant said, "but without the charisma."
Bush, who has traveled to Europe only a few times (the White House refused to say exactly how many), is hardly the first presidential innocent abroad. Ronald Reagan thumbed through a National Geographic picture book before his first trip to China in 1984. It can be a mistake to underestimate Bush, as his political foes have discovered at home. And in picking his cabinet, Bush was confident and shrewd enough to surround himself with strong-willed and experienced Washington players. But he has had trouble balancing big egos and big ideas. With the president somewhat unschooled in foreign affairs, his administration has lurched about on the world stage as two key lieutenants, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have fought a tug of war to dominate policy. The result has been even more incoherence than allies have come to expect from Washington since the cold war ended. An administration that came into office promising a new "humility" has gone from playing the bully--showing disdain for treaties and international institutions during the first few months--to more recently scrambling to placate disgruntled allies.
The referee in this heavyweight matchup between Powell and Rumsfeld is Condi Rice. At 46, the former Stanford provost may not seem to have the presence or the reputation for ruthless infighting of her male colleagues. But, more significant perhaps, she has George Bush's ear as well as his respect. Accustomed to relying on forceful women--his wife, his mother, his communications czar Karen Hughes--Bush is obviously comfortable with Rice. The president routinely invites his national-security adviser to Camp David or to his Texas ranch for the weekend. The two have common interests: Bush's friends say only half-jokingly that his retirement job will be Major League Baseball commissioner; Rice has said on several occasions that she'd like to run the NFL. She is self-effacing, discreet and loyal, essential features in a Bush aide. She is also a "control freak," says a prominent GOP defense expert, carefully vetting what the president hears and whom he sees on foreign affairs. Former secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to be put out over his limited contact with Bush now that the Republicans have retaken the White House.
Under Rice's supervision, Bush's foreign policy really had only one unifying theme in its first five months: not Clinton. The new administration, the most conservative since Reagan's, was determined to end the vacillation and lack of discipline it saw in Bush's predecessor. Whereas Clinton had devoted tremendous effort to trying to broker a Middle East peace accord, Bush signaled right away that he wanted to stand back from the troubled region. Clinton's diplomats had been working to persuade North Korea to halt missile tests. With Rice's active support, Bush abruptly suspended the talks. The new administration also dropped, without consultation at home or abroad, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming negotiated in 1997 by Clinton's vice president--and Bush's 2000 election opponent--Al Gore.
Some conservatives detected a "new realism" in Bush's moves, a hard-eyed willingness to focus on U.S. interests abroad and forget about mushy goals like fostering human rights. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer thought he saw a "Bush Doctrine," masterminded by a Reaganesque Bush standing atop Fortress America. The Europeans thought they saw a monster. "The Ugly American has a face again," inveighed Germany's mass-circulation Stern magazine. In an English village, residents organized a debate titled: "Has the United States Become a Rogue Power?"
Bush's most outspoken proponent of Fortress America is Rumsfeld. The former fighter pilot seems to have a Hobbesian view of the world as a dark and dangerous place where enemies lurk and no one can be fully trusted. He does not want to spend American blood and treasure on murky entanglements or humanitarian causes. But he has been forced to back off from some of his more provocative statements, like an expressed desire to bring back American troops from the Balkans. Rumsfeld's ideological opponent is Powell. While wary of committing troops to foreign interventions, Powell believes in multilateral institutions like the United Nations and in treaties and conventions. One of the shrewdest bureaucratic operators in Washington, he may be content to allow Rumsfeld to overstep his bounds and get slapped down. Nonetheless, the Defense chief has impressive allies. One is his Pentagon deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, the most original thinker in the top rank of advisers and a forceful hard-liner. The other is Vice President Dick Cheney, who once described Rumsfeld as his mentor.
But Bush's problem is not just internal politics. His foreign-policy team has also been stretched thin because of the glacial pace of the appointments and confirmation process in a split Congress. Top jobs re- main unfilled. That--along with Europe's seething anger--may help explain why the United States was surprised last month by a major diplomatic embarrassment. In an stunning show of disrespect, European diplomats contrived to have the United States dropped off the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Another blow came when NATO refused to endorse missile defense.
Those humiliations may have been a wake-up call. The Bushies began to see that they could not simply impose their agenda on a balky and complex world. Last week the administration decided to send CIA Director George Tenet to the Middle East to help the warring Israelis and Palestinians try to secure a ceasefire. Tenet had performed the same mission under Clinton, but Bush had yanked him back. Similarly, the administration said it would pick up negotiations with North Korea where the Clintonites had left off--an implicit concession by Rice that her earlier policy stance was wrong. Last week, after a panel convened by Bush's own administration warned that the threat of global warming was real, Rice admitted that the Bushies had mishandled that issue as well. Before he leaves for Europe, Bush will make a statement aimed at reassuring the Europeans that the administration is looking for an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol. Bush has tried to woo the Russians and Europeans on national missile defense, dropping the "national" to emphasize that he wants a global shield against rogue states.
Bush, who spent a last weekend at his Texas ranch cramming with Rice, betrayed some insecurity about the upcoming trip to Europe by his choice of hosts. The Texas conservative apparently feels ill at ease among the current crop of Western European leaders, mostly left-of-center social democrats. For his first stop he picked Spain, no major player in European politics, but one of the few countries led by conservatives. Bush had wanted to visit Italy, but it turned out the conservative government of newly elected billionaire Silvio Berlusconi is not ready to receive the president. (Berlusconi cannot visit Madrid to see Bush because the Italian leader, who has been convicted on fraud-related charges four times and won each time on appeal, fears being arrested.)
Bush's most important meeting will be with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. He should be well prepared by Rice, whose one deep area of expertise is Russia. Once a hawk on the Soviet Union, she now talks passionately, almost mystically, about creating a new relationship with Moscow, one of mutual interest and understanding. She wants Bush to convince Putin that missile defense is in Russia's long-term interest, and that both nations should abandon the ABM treaty as a relic of the cold war. The goal: to begin the difficult trick of backing away from mutual assured destruction by whittling down their vast nuclear arsenals.
Bush has great faith in his own personal powers of persuasion. He disdains what his aides call "diplobabble," and kept asking his outside teachers at the May tutorial, "What motivates Putin?" He aims to "look Putin in the eye." But his disregard for diplomatic nuances can sometimes get him into trouble. After fairly skillfully handling his first crisis and obtaining the return of the American air crew detained by China, Bush surprised and dismayed China watchers by bluntly stating that the United States would defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. His plainspokenness undermined about two and a half decades of carefully contrived "strategic ambiguity." For much of his trip, Bush might do well to just listen. Even some of his conservative allies suggest that Bush could learn from his predecessor about reaching out for advice both abroad and at home. Last week a Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel, suggested to NEWSWEEK that Bush "bring together some guys from the House and Senate and go around the table. Bill Clinton used to do that." Still a student in a most demanding and unforgiving school, he needs all the teachers he can get.