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Foreign Brush Fires Likely to Preoccupy Bush

The 108th Congress reports for duty this month, with both the executive and legislative branches firmly in Republican hands for the first time in 50 years. So, is George W. Bush free to steer tax, regulatory and social policy sharply to the right?

I doubt it. The recent elections certainly were a political triumph for the president, as he led his party back to power in the Senate and boosted the GOP majority by a few seats in the House. Bush’s bargaining power is increased not only by the Republicans’ enhanced legislative numbers, but also by Democratic disarray as the opposition party struggles to find a message and a messenger for the post-Clinton era.

Still, the first half of the Bush II administration brought only a moderate tack to starboard for the ship of state. The same political headwinds that constrained the president during his first two years in office blow hard today. By next year, it will be difficult to accomplish much of anything on the legislative front, as the presidential campaign moves into high gear.

Notwithstanding December’s purge of Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, the Bush II administration is being consumed by foreign affairs, particularly terrorism and Iraq. Every hour that the president’s key people have to spend lining up international support for American action, or at least muting international opposition, is an hour that cannot be spent on domestic policy. Perhaps more important, every minute Congress spends debating foreign affairs is a minute that that cannot be spent passing domestic legislation the president may want to get passed.

So the irony continues: The former Texas governor, who came to office with almost no foreign experience and a long domestic to-do list, is seeing his administration become the most foreign-dominated White House since Vietnam swamped fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson.

I see no end to this. If he gets past al-Quaida, Iraq and the reconstruction of Afghanistan, Bush needs to deal with North Korea and its nukes, Pakistan and its nukes (and its simmering confrontation with nuclear-armed India), terrorism and instability across a huge belt from Palestine to the Philippines, China’s designs on Taiwan, rising anti-Americanism in continental Europe and economic and political turmoil across Latin America.

When an American president’s two best friends abroad are the prime minister of Britain and the president of Russia, you know he has his hands full. The years Franklin Roosevelt spent in a similar position are not remembered for domestic policy.

Oh, we will see some action on the home front. Congress may well summon the courage to pass another tax cut this year. But Bush still may need 60 Senate votes to make the cockamamie 2001 tax law – which reverses itself in 2011 – permanent, and he still probably does not have them.

Some conservative judicial nominees are likely to be confirmed. But at the Supreme Court level, the more liberal justices considering retirement such as John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg might try to hang on until Democrats have a chance to retake the Senate, if not the White House, in 2004. Meanwhile, conservative justices such as Sandra Day O’Connor may go ahead and quit, but on most issues -- except for abortion rights, where O’Connor has provided moderate support -- a Bush replacement would not likely change much. If Bush nominates someone too extremely right wing to the high court, he probably will lose a couple of moderate Republican votes in the Senate that would jeopardize confirmation, so he is more or less constrained to the conservative mainstream. This president does not want to be Borked.

I’ll be looking for this year’s big news to be on the foreign pages. Will Bush go into Iraq and remove Saddam for something other than the good, but internationally unpalatable, reason that the world and Iraq are better off without him? Will unreliable allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia provide enough help against terrorism to avoid triggering a crisis in our relations with them? Will China try to capitalize on our preoccupation elsewhere to dispose of Taiwan? Will North Korea provoke a confrontation in a desperate bid to have us buy our way out of it with financial aid?

George W. Bush has discovered that whatever power comes with his office does not include the power to choose his biggest problems. They have, instead, chosen him – and most of them have a distinct foreign accent.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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