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U.S.: Will Domestic Crisis Affect Foreign Policy?

President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (file photo) The U.S. government's effort to relieve the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina two weeks ago is consuming much of President George W. Bush's time. In part, at least, the president is trying to restore the credibility of an administration that seemed to falter in responding to the storm. This effort may be drawing his attention away from foreign affairs, particularly the war in Iraq. Will his domestic concerns have an appreciable impact on American foreign policy? And will members of the opposition Democratic Party try to take advantage of Bush's apparent vulnerability to influence that policy?

Washington, 12 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Bush's presidency has been defined by foreign policy. Now, though, he is focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the war in Iraq isn't going away, and the United States still has to cope with complex and delicate relationships with such countries as Russia and China. And there is the complicated web of world trade.

The details of these and many other duties can be handled by cabinet members without Bush's daily involvement, says Patrick Basham, who specializes in government administration at the Cato Institute, a policy center in Washington.

But Basham says that historically, foreign policy always has been "a prisoner of the president's political situation." Last November, just after he'd won a second presidential term, Bush said he'd earned what he called "political capital."

"For as long as the president is politically consumed by reacting to the criticism over the hurricane response, it is going to take both his attention -- some of his attention away from what's happening overseas," Basham said. "And also -- most importantly -- [it's] going to take away some of the political capital that he would have continued to expend on selling and orchestrating foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, because that [political capital] is going to be consumed domestically."

Further, Basham says, the administration's faltering response to Katrina is viewed very negatively overseas. As a result, he says, he expects people around the world will be even less susceptible to Bush's new public-diplomacy initiative, which is designed to sell American policies worldwide, particularly in Muslim countries.

Basham says Democrats probably can't affect Bush's foreign policy other than to help remind Americans of the president's performance in the response to Katrina and to continue to point to problems in Iraq. These two issues, he says, can give the Democrats a non-ideological campaign message both for congressional elections next year and the presidential vote in 2006.

"There is a window of opportunity for the Democrats to better connect their criticisms of the Bush administration, and, as a consequence, provide for the first time some kind of coherent opposition, thematic narrative, that will basically come down not to the fact that these guys are too conservative, but they're simply incompetent," Basham said. "They've run a war poorly; they deal with domestic crises poorly."
"I think [Bush] won't be able to sell his foreign policies as much, but in truth he wasn't selling them anyway. He was trying to sell them, but the public wasn't buying. And the fact that he 's not going to be out there making speeches on foreign policy is probably not going to make much difference." -- analyst Allan Lichtman

That strategy just won't work, according to Allan Lichtman, a professor of American history at American University in Washington.

"Arguments on competence have never swayed the American people," Lichtman said. "Some of us remember Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988 against George Bush's father, when he said this was a campaign of competence and not ideology. He went down in flames. The American people are looking for something more than competence. They are looking for vision. They're looking for guidance and they're looking for courage. It remains to be seen who [among Democrats] steps up to provide that."

Lichtman says the Democrats could capitalize on the perceived incompetence of the administration not simply by criticizing Bush and his aides, but by promoting a broader vision of their own ability to manage an abler government, one that is more responsive to the people's needs.

The Bush administration's foreign policy also is unlikely to be swayed simply because the president is busy with Katrina, according to Lichtman. He says Bush has never let anything -- even growing public disapproval or evidence of failure -- prompt him to change his course on any policy.

Lichtman says Iraq is a perfect example of that, given the growing public disapproval of how he has conducted the war.

"I think [Bush] won't be able to sell his foreign policies as much, but in truth he wasn't selling them anyway," Lichtman said. "He was trying to sell them, but the public wasn't buying. And the fact that he 's not going to be out there making speeches on foreign policy is probably not going to make much difference because, in the end, the public is going to be responding to real events, not spin."

Lichtman says the only change is Katrina. Otherwise, he says, expect Bush's foreign policy to move ahead on its current track, despite any criticism.

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