- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

President Bush's best friend among foreign leaders, Mexican President Vicente Fox, has been playing a delicate game of late.

Pressured by domestic sensitivity about excessive American influence in Mexican affairs, Mr. Fox has ventured into opposing Mr. Bush on some issues, such as the immigration status of Mexicans in the United States, which has helped him emphasize his independence.

But on matters like border security and drug trafficking issues crucial for U.S. national security he has been largely cooperating with Washington, Bush administration officials and analysts said.

A U.S. official said yesterday that it has been difficult for the United States to make "grand gestures" to Mexico, especially on immigration, since September 11, but "we have continued to make progress on a new set of issues."

"We were about to embark on deeper talks on migration" and legalizing the status of millions of illegal Mexicans in America before the September 11 terrorist attacks, he said

"But that became impossible because of the new security arrangements," he said.

That has hurt Mr. Fox, who had made easing U.S. immigration a major policy objective, he noted, and now Washington is seeking "ways to assure border security and speed the transit process at the same time."

The House last week passed a bill that, if also approved by the Senate, would shorten the status-adjustment period for Mexicans who entered the United States illegally but have filed for legal residency. But that legislation falls far short of the ambitious proposal last year.

In the 48 hours before he flew to Mexico yesterday, Mr. Bush conducted four interviews and a round-table discussion with Mexican and other Latin American reporters, in which he insisted that the relationship between the two neighbors "has not diminished."

Mr. Bush is seeking to reinvigorate bilateral ties during his third meeting with Mr. Fox since they both took office, while acknowledging that "there are some areas where we agree and some areas where we don't agree."

The Mexican leader's failure to condemn immediately the September 11 attacks was something Washington took note of, although Mr. Fox did call Mr. Bush to offer condolences.

The administration official blamed Mr. Fox's delayed response on the "poor sense of public affairs that has plagued his administration." The president lacks "a good set of advisers on public relations issues, and there was no one saying, 'You should go out there are say something,'" he said.

Robert Leiken, guest scholar at the Nixon Center, said Mr. Fox has also had the disadvantage of a complicated political situation in his own country. "He has been trying unsuccessfully to mend fences with congress, and his popularity has fallen substantially," Mr. Leiken said.

With the Mexican economy in a recession deeper than that in the United States, he said Mr. Fox "has been doing much better abroad" even though foreign policy was never a priority for Mexican governments before Mr. Fox's.

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank focusing on Latin America, said this week's visit by Mr. Bush is "a big boost" for Mr. Fox.

Tom Carter contributed to this article.

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