- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

President Bush was warmly embracing the virtues of multilateralism throughout his Asian trip last week in a pre-election bid to dispel his reputation as a unilateralist.

The image of a solitary gunslinger, swaggering across the world stage in pursuit of his pre-emptive national security agenda without seeking the support of America’s allies — a perception Mr. Bush has to try and dispel in order to move ahead with his war on terror — has always been a gross exaggeration.

After all, Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have repeatedly gone the extra mile to try and persuade our allies that they should join the U.S.-led coalition to crush the terrorist armies that threaten us all.

And they’ve had some success, as evidenced by unanimously approved U.N. National Security Council resolutions (supporting us on Iraq). Not easy results to get in an unwieldy, one-veto body.

The annual Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit usually deals with trade, currency problems and proposals to build global economic growth. But this year Mr. Bush focused the agenda on fighting terrorism, as well as the threat of North Korea’s budding nuclear-weapons program.

Mr. Bush’s message in Thailand and the other nations he visited was it would take a global, multilateral offensive to defeat terrorism, and that the civilized nations of the world had to work together against a common enemy or be attacked separately.

Exhibit A for the president’s latest multilateral response was the way he handled North Korea’s communist dictator Kim Jong-il, who wants the United States to sign a peace treaty promising we will not attack his nation.

But Mr. Bush said such a demand was a nonstarter and that there would be no treaty. He made it clear that if Mr. Kim wanted a signed “piece of paper” — in exchange for abandoning North Korea’s nuclear arms buildup — the deal would have to be worked out with North Korea’s neighbors: China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Mr. Bush’s tactic is an old one: There is power in collective diplomacy. The sight of these five powerhouses, particularly Communist China, ganging up with the United States against Mr. Kim, would be a classic case of diplomatic one-upmanship.

In a news conference aboard Air Force One on the final leg of his Asian trip, Mr. Bush explained his bilateral gambit: “Kim Jong-il is used to being able to deal bilaterally with the United States, but the change of policy now is that he must deal with other nations, most notably China,” Mr. Bush said. “Now he’s got his big neighbor to the right on his border, he’s got a neighbor to the south, he’s got Japan, he’s got another neighbor, Russia, all saying the same thing.”

In other words, Mr. Kim, we’ve got you surrounded.

Last week, North Korea dismissed the tradeoff as laughable. But North Korea knows Mr. Bush has out-dealt them in this round.

Other examples of multilateralism were certainly at work last week when the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain — with the Bush administration’s support — worked out an agreement with Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and open up its nuclear facilities to inspections.

It was a positive sign from Iran. It has been part of the “axis of evil” Mr. Bush has targeted, but has toned down its belligerence toward the United States ever since we ousted its next-door neighbor, Saddam Hussein, from power.

But Mr. Bush wants more out of Iran. Mr. Bush says its next step must be to turn over the handful of al Qaeda leaders the administration believes Iran has been harboring, in order to “help relations with Iran.”

Meanwhile, the president continued reaching out to Muslim leaders to reassure them his war on terrorism is not a war on Islam.

While meeting with a roundtable group of Muslim leaders and clerics in Jakarta, participants said Mr. Bush listened intently and took a notepad out of his pocket and began taking notes.

In Bali, Indonesia — one year after terrorists murdered more than 200 people in two nightclub bombings — Mr. Bush said: “Terrorists who claim Islam as their inspiration defile one of the world’s great faiths. Murder has no place in any religious tradition. It must find no home in Indonesia.”

Too bad that solemn message isn’t being evangelized by Islamic clerics in Indonesia.

Throughout the grueling, whirlwind trip, Mr. Bush was clearly trying to lay the cowboy perception to rest and play up his role as a diplomatic, inclusive world leader. There are times when military force is the only answer, as it clearly was in Afghanistan and Iraq and undoubtedly will be again, but “not every policy issue needs to be dealt with by force,” Mr. Bush said.

Not necessarily a cowboy’s mantra.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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