Message may be clear, but Bush's straight talk sometimes offends

Blunt vs. language of diplomacy

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, still taking a crash course in diplomacy, is getting pointers from an unlikely trio: Russian President Vladimir Putin, former Democratic rival Al Gore and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

But as Bush begins a weeklong tour of Asia, there is little sign he is about to modify his blunt-spoken -- some would say less-than-diplomatic -- approach.

Putin and Gore both used carefully crafted language last week -- Putin in press comments in Moscow and Gore in a speech in New York -- to caution Bush against U.S. unilateralism in going after Iraq or other hostile regimes.

Thatcher took a different tact, saying in a newspaper essay that Iraq's Saddam Hussein must go. ''How and when, not whether, to remove him are the only important questions,'' she wrote.

Clearly there is no shortage of foreign policy advice for Bush as he ponders the next phase in the war on terrorism.

But disagreement persists -- at home and abroad -- over whether he should be speaking a little softer when wielding the big stick of U.S. military might.

Bush's bluntness could be troublesome as he travels through Japan, China and South Korea -- a region where intentions are often indirectly signaled rather than expressly stated.

''Very direct language is not necessarily the language of diplomacy in other countries,'' said Antony Blinken, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Confusion remains in foreign capitals over Bush's branding of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ''axis of evil,'' Blinken said. ''People are wondering what it means in practice.''

It is clear to Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser. ''I think what the president is doing, and what he did in the State of the Union, is to speak in a kind of plain and clear way about the threat that we all face.''

In an interview with The Associated Press, she said: ''I suppose there are people who like more nuance. But I think we're being successful with the style that the president has. So I suspect he's going to stick with it,''

She added, ''Nuance isn't always good when you're talking about terror and bad regimes.''

Just as Bush was being plain and clear, the usually straight-talking Putin was trying nuance.

While the United States has no basis for extending the war to Baghdad, ''that does not mean that the international community does not have any problems concerning Iraq,'' the Russian president told a news conference.

Separately, Putin told the Wall Street Journal that the United Nations should deal with Iraq and other rogue regimes -- not the United States alone. But he also praised the U.S.-Russian relationship and said Bush's State of the Union ''was a success for him politically.''

Meanwhile, Gore stepped out of the political shadows to tell a New York foreign policy group that the administration should show more respect for its allies against terrorism. Sometimes, he said, it sends the message: ''With others, if we must; by ourselves, if possible.''

Still, the former vice president praised Bush for putting Iraq, Iran and North Korea on notice -- and for a ''very successful opening counterattack'' in the war.

Thatcher offered her advice in a New York Times op-ed essay. ''The West as a whole needs to strengthen its resolve against rogue regimes and upgrade its defenses. The good news is that America has a president who can offer the leadership necessary to do so,'' the former British prime minister said.

It was an update on her advice on Iraq to Bush's father 11 years earlier: ''George ... this is no time to go wobbly.''

But does plainspokenness lead to good diplomacy?

''I think the difficulty at this stage is that it's not clear that the administration knows what it wants to do in the first instance, so it's hard to know exactly what they're looking for the allies to do,'' said James Steinberg, a former deputy national security adviser to President Clinton.

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said, ''The president believes that moral clarity makes for strong diplomacy, and that creates better results.''

''Ronald Reagan said to Mikhail Gorbachev, 'Tear down this wall.' He didn't say, 'Would you mind making it a little shorter?' He spoke with moral clarity, and as a result the world is a better place. So, too, with President Bush,'' Fleischer said.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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