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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 5, 2006

COMMENTARY
Asia, Pacific aren't Bush priorities

By Richard Halloran

It may be trite, but nonetheless true, that things unspoken may be more revealing than what actually is said.

So it was with President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday, particularly on the president's plans and policies toward Asia this year. His silence on Japan, China and India, other than as economic competitors, seemed to mean that no new U.S. initiatives will be offered in the foreseeable future.

The president's address further suggested that relations with Asian nations will be left to the State Department, the Pentagon and other executive agencies. It indicated that only in a crisis would the White House itself turn its attention to Asia.

The few issues in foreign affairs that the president did mention were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the growing nuclear threat from Iran and the turmoil in the Middle East, notably the hostility between the Arabs and Israel.

The president said nothing about the resurgence of Japan as a U.S. ally, nor about the rise of China as a vexing issue confronting America, Asia and the world, nor about the emergence of India, which Bush is scheduled to visit next month, as a political and military power.

Moreover, he said nothing about resolving troubling questions that affect Asia as well as America such as persuading Taiwan to do more to defend itself, forcing North Korea to give up its ambitions for nuclear weapons, or reversing the steady deterioration of U.S. relations with South Korea.

Instead, the president's annual report, with its focus on domestic political and especially economic issues, reflected his concern with congressional elections in November. The president's Republican Party has the majority in both houses of Congress today, but barely.

Throughout much of the history of the republic, the party in power has lost seats in mid-term elections. The president clearly was more anxious to do what he could to keep his party in control than to attend to relations with Tokyo, Beijing and other points in the East.

Beyond 2006, the president seemed intent on setting a course for the rest of his term, which ends in January 2009. With the end in sight, even if down the road, a U.S. president's power begins to slip away.

Polls show that with his approval ratings well below 50 percent, most Americans think he will not be able to get much done from now on. Apparently, Bush was seeking to stave off that appearance of weakness by emphasizing domestic issues.

In a subtle way, the president seemed to be holding up a mirror that reflected the mood of Americans today. Americans have been showing signs of fatigue as a consequence of fighting in five foreign wars since 1941, exerting leadership in the international political arena, and bearing a heavy economic burden such as the annual trade deficit of nearly $800 billion in 2005.

In perhaps the most surprising and striking passages of his address, Bush said "the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting yet it ends in danger and decline." He asserted that Americans "cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders."

"America rejects the false comfort of isolationism," he said. Turning to the threat of economic isolation, he said "we're seeing some old temptations return. Protectionists want to escape competition." He called that a form of "economic retreat" that would lead "toward a stagnant and second-rate economy."

In those passages, Bush evidently recognized what many polls have shown, a gradual slippage in concern about events beyond American shores other than the war in Iraq. A majority of those polled support the war on terror, the prevention of nuclear weapons being spread and actions to secure adequate supplies of energy.

Beyond that, however, a majority said it was not the responsibility of the U.S. to protect weaker nations against foreign aggression, nor to improve the standard of living of less-developed nations, nor to build democracy elsewhere.

Small majorities said they were dissatisfied with the U.S. position in the world. They asserted that the U.S. should play a major but not leading role in solving international problems, with 55 percent contending that the U.S. should let other nations be responsible for finding solutions to those problems.

The president thus seemed to be trying to turn back the rolling swells of an isolationist current.

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.