- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001


The celebrated Bush administration foreign policy team, in its first major tests, can't seem to decide who bats leadoff and who hits cleanup.

Mixed messages and public confusion have plagued the administration in its early weeks, first on U.S. policy toward Iraq and then on President Bush's willingness to continue the Clinton administration's rapprochement with North Korea.

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"I think it's fair to say that the rhetoric to date hasn't been well coordinated yet," says Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon and State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"That's not unusual when the people in a new administration have not had time to develop a nuanced policy in the crush of events," he says.

But the muddle has surprised Washington because of the experience and depth of the foreign-policy team Mr. Bush recruited.

Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell came to their posts trailing glittering resumes and long records of government service at the highest level. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was a rising star in Republican foreign-policy circles even before signing up for Texas Gov. George W. Bush's successful presidential campaign.

But in the space of two days this week, the administration effectively reversed itself on what it would do about missile talks with North Korea, which were left unfinished when President Clinton left office.

Mr. Powell on Tuesday said the new administration planned "to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off."

A day later, following a meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Mr. Bush publicly questioned key parts of the Clinton strategy and signaled he planned to go much slower on thawing relations with Pyongyang.

A senior White House briefer spent considerable time afterward trying to persuade skeptical reporters that the abrupt change in tone did not signal either an abrupt change in tone or an internal rift between senior policy-makers.

By yesterday, Mr. Powell was suggesting stiff new conditions for any deal with North Korea and even talking about trying to reopen a deal made in 1994.

On Iraq, the administration has struggled to coordinate its evolving policy on international sanctions against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Powell told a House hearing Wednesday that it is critical that U.N. weapons inspectors be allowed back into Iraq to keep Baghdad in check.

Mr. Cheney had told a luncheon meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, in an interview published earlier this week: "I don't think we want to hinge our policy just to the questions of whether or not inspectors go back in there."

The administration has struggled to explain its efforts to "re-energize" the sanctions against Iraq while at the same time decreasing the number of goods banned from sale to the regime.

The stature and bureaucratic skills of the Bush team's heavy hitters had led some analysts to expect that policy and turf clashes were inevitable.

Mr. Cheney has built a personal staff with broad security and foreign-policy credentials. Mr. Powell has vowed to restore the influence of an often demoralized department, partly through the strength of his own charisma. And Mr. Rumsfeld, backed by the Pentagon's resources and budget clout, has literally written the book on how to lead and how to follow at the highest levels of U.S. government.

Open criticism of any one of the three is rare. "I have some ideas [about the Bush team's early policy miscues,"] one veteran Republican foreign policy official says, "but I'd rather not see them in print."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat who was national security adviser under President Carter, praises Mr. Bush's skeptical stance on North Korea and his go-slow approach to any deal with the Communist regime.

"I never understood the pell-mell rush by the last administration to get a deal with Pyongyang, or why the president would want to go there in the last days of his term," says Mr. Brzezinski.

One problem he finds in the Bush administration struggle to present a united front is that so many sub-Cabinet policy posts have yet to be filled as nominees slowly work their way through the confirmation system.

"Some serious issues like the Middle East, like China, aren't going to wait," he says. "That's when you need talented people and staff so that you are better prepared to shape policy."

Mr. Powell, appearing at a budget hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked how many of the State Department's senior officials had been confirmed.

"You're looking at him," Mr. Powell joked.

German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, in town for talks with senior Bush administration officials, says he is not concerned as he watches the new team settle in.

"This is an administration that is in that phase of defining its policies, its standpoints, its interests," says Mr. Scharping. "There is no tendency on our part to overestimate the importance of any particular statement."

Nevertheless, Democratic legislators yesterday told Mr. Powell that the apparent confusion over message could have real consequences in places like the Korean Peninsula, especially with regional powers like China, Japan and South Korea all seeking clues to the new president's thinking.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said he was "puzzled and disappointed" by the apparent abrupt change in tone on North Korea this week.

Added Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts: "I have a sense that we may be sending messages that are subject to misinterpretation."

Replied Mr. Powell: "I think there's less difference here than meets the eye."

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