Forrest Gump abroad?

Posted: Feb 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Receiving the news, while traveling abroad, of George W.'s deportment is scandalously exhilarating. The abasements of his predecessor, in his contacts overseas, are simply gone. Mr. Clinton was so steeply mired in ambivalence that it became hard for him to say anything endearing about the United States, except to the extent that he identified the United States with its 42nd president, himself. A trip through Africa guaranteed that Mr. Clinton would spend time deploring all the terrible things the United States did to Africa in centuries gone by, often recited to assemblies whose reveries are for life in America, in exchange for the lives most Africans have endured since the blight of decolonization.

When Mr. Bush announced that the war in Afghanistan was not over, inasmuch as the enemy did, not by any means all of it, reside in Afghanistan, a cosmopolitan prince in this part of the world (Switzerland) observed that the American president needs to "prove" that there is more to do in such as Iraq before he can reasonably proceed on the assumption that Europe will endorse his activity. George Bush's way of handling problems like this is to say he is surprised that Europeans spend what would seem inordinate time worrying about U.S. forces tracking down terrorists, rather than about terrorists being tracked down by U.S. forces.

What is observable, in conversation with Europeans and others, and in some of their press, is the evanescence of their indignation. Usually they get mad, we apologize, they get madder because we didn't apologize sufficiently, then U.S. engines of criticism get mad because the United States got into such a mess. It was so when we bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The more we apologized, the madder the Chinese Reds got.

When last year a Chinese fighter jet diddled with one of our patrol planes and crashed into the sea, and our wounded aircraft landed in Chinese territory, there was the expected caterwaul from Peking. Mr. Bush's statement struck some as a bit too craven, given that our people were patrolling the skies in freedom-of-the-seas exercises, while the Chinese interloper was aggressive and suicidal. But we got our pilots and plane back, and Mr. Bush seems to have learned from his near brush with diplomatic servility.

Has that changed! He is breathing the same air that Ronald Reagan breathed when he gave attention to the Evil Empire. One wishes one had been there in a White House closet when Reagan scratched those words into the speech and handed it up to the chain of detoxifiers, getting back an etiolated version onto which he calmly, but decisively, reinserted the Evil Empire phrase, whereafter it sounded out and lives happily forever in the airwaves of hygienic diplomatic thought.

Now President Bush has gone to Asia, and there is no trace, no trace whatever , of any wish to modify the charge in his State of the Union address that something he calls the axis of evil binds Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The dumb leader of North Korea is struck dumber still by the focus Mr. Bush has given to the regime Kim Jong Il inherited from his evil father. What they have in North Korea is starvation, isolation, terror, and the makings of an atom bomb. That Mr. Bush should be reticent about drawing attention to the septic fruit of 50 years of the Kim rulers is something that, well, kind of goes against the grain of W.

And he goes to Japan with headlines like "Bush Urges Japan to Spur Economy." That kind of thing is thought to be the equivalent of telling the queen to watch her grammar. But of course it isn't so. What is so is that the failure of Japan Inc. over the past 10 years has immobilized Japan, and demoralized trading partners in Asia for whom the growth and ability of the Japanese economy have been a great bulwark against lost confidence in the free market approach to social order.

So what will the president say, by way of counseling Prime Minister Koizumi? A mandarin nicety might be for the president to spend 20 minutes on what was done wrong by Enron, applying the lessons to Japan: hoked-up relations with banks, carrying bad credit to inordinate lengths, declining to privatize sick federal industries.

Mr. Bush knows the basic postulates of successful free systems. You reward industry with low taxes and minimum regulations, and you encourage education, strike out against sclerosis in labor markets and welcome free trade. He doesn't mind it at all to be thought of as looking occasionally like Forrest Gump. He is speaking the truth, and lending to the elaboration of the truth the character he has brought to the presidency.