Carter, Clinton offer foreign policy expertise, but Bush isn’t listening
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush has been getting a lot of foreign policy advice lately from the men who held office before him. Jimmy Carter says the Cuban trade embargo should go; Bill Clinton says an interim Mideast peace deal might work.
Bush isn’t heeding their advice. Rather, he’s following the long tradition of presidents who try to ignore, or at best barely tolerate, the overseas initiatives of predecessors they view as meddling in their White House business.
About the only past president Bush turns to for help is his own father, and then only in the strictest of privacy.
“It’s an awkward situation for the Bush people. On the one hand, he has two very prominent former presidents from the other party whose help he probably doesn’t want,” said Paul Light, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“On the other, there’s his father, who — if anybody ever found out he was involved (in giving advice) — could so diminish his son that it would be a political disaster,” Light said.
White House officials were careful to praise Carter for raising human rights concerns during his Cuba trip. Privately, however, they bitterly complained that Carter’s anti-embargo message was threatening to swamp Bush’s policy in favor of the trade embargo.
“Trade with Cuba doesn’t benefit the people of Cuba,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “It’s used to prop up an oppressive regime.”
In general, former presidents “take on a pledge,” Light said: “Keep your mouth shut on foreign policy unless your conscience tells you you simply must speak out.”
Carter presents Bush with a dilemma because his actions appear to spring from deep-seated beliefs, analysts say. Since being defeated after one term, the Democrat has worked in the developing world on issues like human rights and democracy.
“His credibility as a moral leader is very high at this point,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian at Boston University.
Yet politics always plays a role, Dallek believes.
“For the Bush administration to end the embargo would jeopardize his brother’s election,” Dallek said, noting that Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, is governor of Florida, where Cuban-American voters who favor the trade embargo hold political sway. “So clearly, part of Carter’s message is that Bush is putting party politics and his brother’s re-election before a rational foreign policy.”
Bush aides also have responded sharply in the past to Clinton — remaining silent to his offers of help on foreign affairs, for example, and accusing him of overreaching on Mideast peace efforts during his time in office.
Clinton, while largely refraining from criticizing Bush’s policies, has made clear he would like to help in places like the Middle East or Northern Ireland. He has strongly defended his policies on the Mideast and denied charges his administration failed to take strong action against Osama bin Laden.
Next week, Bush will send Clinton on his first official mission since leaving the White House — as head of a delegation celebrating the independence of obscure East Timor.
Clinton himself often had to deal with Carter’s involvement in high-profile negotiations with countries like North Korea and Haiti, sometimes welcoming Carter’s efforts and occasionally seeming only to tolerate them.
As for Bush’s father, the former president’s foreign policy expertise — and respect in Arab circles — is clearly coming into play as his son works on the Mideast conflict and on Iraq.
The elder Bush, who created the coalition that fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, met with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah last month after his son, the president, had a key meeting with the Saudi leader.
Even before that, when Abdullah complained last June that the younger Bush seemed too beholden to Israel, the elder Bush personally called to vouch for his son.
Bush aides insist, though, that the president’s father does not play a large role in policy decisions.
The irony is that Bush — while almost certain not to turn to Clinton for help on the Middle East, or to turn publicly to his own father — might have been tempted to use Carter as a Middle East emissary, Light believes.
The brouhaha over Cuba almost certainly scuttled any chance of that.
“It’s really too bad. He was the last president to actually successfully negotiate on the Mideast,” Light said of Carter.
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