Tue, Nov 14, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Now is the autumn of American discontent

By Richard Halloran

It has been the autumn of US discontent -- discontent with President George W. Bush, discontent with corruption in Washington and discontent with the war in Iraq.

That discontent erupted last week as the Democrats took control of the US House of Representatives from the Republicans, won the Senate and saw Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld replaced by Robert Gates, a former CIA director who once described himself as "the ultimate insider" in Washington.

Beyond electoral politics, the US is split on immigration, same-sex marriage, abortion, tax policy and an array of other issues. Just before the election, the non-partisan Pew Research Center noted a "vast divide" between Republican and Democratic voters who "see the world quite differently."

Consequently, US foreign policy and security posture, especially that in Asia, is in jeopardy. It was once said that US politics stopped at the water's edge and the nation showed a united face to the rest of the world. That is no longer so despite reassuring words after the election from Bush and the Democratic leaders who will take office in January.

Instead, there is a high likelihood of endless wrangling over the past and wide disagreement over how to extricate the US from Iraq. Much of that contention can be expected to capture headlines when the nomination of Gates goes before the Senate for hearings and a vote.

Gates, who, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, holds a doctorate in Russian history, has shown no particular interest in Asia. In a memoir, he revealed that the Chinese had disclosed to him and other senior US officials their plan to attack Vietnam in 1979, but he had failed to understand their message.

Bush will have an opportunity this week to take the initiative on Asia policy and perhaps even get ahead of his political opponents when he goes to Hanoi for the annual APEC summit. There, and in later stops in Singapore and Jakarta, Bush could set out a new vision for the US' role in Asia. But don't count on it.

The most immediate problem is on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has promised to resume negotiations over his nuclear program. Kim, who has a long record of taking brash action to enhance his negotiating position, may believe that a weakened US president will give him an added advantage in what are already expected to be hard-nosed negotiations. Watch for him to ask for something that Bush would in no way be prepared to give.

Most important, the long-term issue of US policy toward China, the power of Asia, is becoming more complicated by the day, partly because the Bush administration seems to lack a strategy for dealing with Beijing.

Beijing can read election returns, even if most officials there don't understand US democracy, and see a wounded president who can be exploited. Chinese officials have suggested to the US that they are becoming increasingly impatient with their rivals in Taiwan, which they believe to be drifting toward independence in defiance of Beijing's claim to sovereignty.

The Chinese have suggested that the US should be more "cooperative" on the Taiwan issue in return for Beijing's help in reining in Pyongyang. The Chinese particularly object to the US' pressure on Taiwan to buy a large arms package.

The Bush administration has expressed displeasure, sometimes in public but more forcefully in private, over some of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) political pronouncements.

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