The Oval: Not Such Good Neighbors

Call it Bush's law of unexpected diplomacy. Four years ago, nobody could have predicted just how difficult relations would become across North America. And a year ago, nobody could have predicted just how improved relations would become across the Atlantic.

How difficult are George Bush's relationships with Mexico and Canada? They're not the kind of tension that was so visible between the U.S. president and Russia's Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, last month. But the awkwardness between Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Mexico's President Vicente Fox, was on full display at their joint press conference at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, on Wednesday. Martin bluntly ruled out ever joining Bush's long-held vision for a missile-defense system to protect North America--the first significant breach between Canada and the United States in terms of defending the continent in recent years. "The file is closed," Martin told reporters. "But our cooperation in terms of defense, in terms of our borders, in terms of our common frontiers is ... not only very clear, but it is being accentuated."

It isn't clear how the Canadian prime minister can claim to be improving cooperation with Washington at the same time as breaking with Washington. But that was the "Alice in Wonderland" tone of the Texas trilateral. Fox talked about partnerships--after all, the three leaders unveiled the grandly titled Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. Then the Mexican leader proceeded to smile ruefully and shake his head as Bush downplayed the differences that have divided the North American leaders: "I can understand why people disagree with certain decisions I have made," Bush conceded, without shifting his position on those decisions.

You only have to look at the partnership's goals to see how poor things are. Either the partnership is full of meaningless aims, or the three neighbors have achieved precious little over the last several years. Under the "prosperity agenda," for instance, the leaders agreed to such things as reduce regulatory overlap and ease traffic bottlenecks at borders. Other goals include the "efficient movement of goods," including the "speedy implementation" of new trade rules. Compared to the profound disagreement with Mexico over border security and illegal immigrants, and compared to Canada's deep problems with missile defense, these good intentions look like small fry.

Compare them also with the recommendations of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on North America. Beyond security and trade, the task force highlights a third big challenge: raising living standards in Mexico to close the widening gap between Mexicans on one side, and Americans and Canadians on the other.

Such comparisons suggest the Bush administration wasted its first term on North American issues. As he campaigned for the presidency in 2000, Texas Governor Bush tore into President Clinton for having "dropped the ball" on NAFTA and for staging "summits without substance." Bush traveled across the Mexican border to Nuevo Laredo to dedicate the World Trade Bridge, pledging: "I will look south, not as an afterthought but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency."

Maybe the Texas trilateral signals a return to those early hopes. But the limited scope of the joint agreements doesn't suggest so. After his trip to Europe last month, Bush has effectively resolved--for the time being, at least--significant disputes over Iran's nuclear program and the lifting of the European Union's arms embargo on China. He has also forged ahead with a joint strategy to push Syria out of Lebanon. If only his backyard looked so optimistic.

On the Road Again

President Bush took his Social Security road show to the Southwest this week, hitting three states with high senior populations: Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. While the "conversation" format remained the same, there are signs the White House is once again retooling its message to better sell the idea of private accounts to the elderly.

For weeks, Bush has appeared on stage with signs bearing the slogan STRENGTHENING SOCIAL SECURITY. This week, Bush's events were outfitted with a new message: KEEPING OUR PROMISE TO SENIORS. In addition, the "panelists" that appear on stage with Bush now almost invariably include a grandparent accompanied by his or her college-age grandchild, both of whom speak glowingly of plans to add personal accounts to the retirement system.

It's a one-two punch at two demographics the White House needs in order to pass Social Security reforms. But administration officials still insist that the success of private accounts still rests heavily with elderly voters, not the younger crowd. This week, the president added stops at local retirement centers to his itinerary, where he reassured elderly supporters that his proposed reforms won't harm those over the age of 55. "You're going to get your checks," Bush told a small group at the Bear Canyon Senior Center in Albuquerque, N.M., on Tuesday. "The question is whether or not your grandchildren are going to get their checks."