Bush's high popularity bound to foreign policy


WASHINGTON -- Tears moistened the eyes of the Kuwaiti ambassador as he thanked President Bush for giving his people their country back.

"There isn't, I believe, a more precious gift that could be given to people than their freedom, and their liberty, and their homeland," Saud Nasir al-Sabah told the president during a fireside meeting Thursday in the Oval Office. "You will go down in history as the great liberator of my country."

Mr. Bush also found himself feeling "very emotional," he said. But for him, the end of the Persian Gulf war has brought a more somber sense of relief and vindication.

The president said he was already moving fast to exploit the nation's enhanced influence in global politics, promising the United States will take a "leadership role" in working to resolve such long-smoldering Middle East disputes as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the strife in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the White House privately concedes that Mr. Bush's personal popularity as commander in chief, which hit a stunning 91 percent approval rating in a poll published Friday by USA Today, probably won't help him much in getting his domestic program approved.

And no such aura of enthusiasm surrounds the president's inevitable return to the irksome task of confronting the nation's economic and social ills.

"You're just not going to have 40 more votes on some GOP issue than you might have otherwise," said a Republican source charged with counting heads for the White House on Capitol Hill. "It can't hurt, but there's no way to quantify it."

The war's quick, successful conclusion may boost consumer confidence enough to short-circuit a lengthy recession and thus keep problems such as unemployment, poverty and homelessness from growing worse.

But as for "exploiting the war" to promote Mr. Bush's point of view on such domestic issues as civil rights and education vouchers, one administration official admitted, "I don't know how you go about doing it."

Mr. Bush took a small stab at that Wednesday when he unveiled a new program that repackages several previously unsuccessful domestic proposals -- including those on civil rights, education, crime and housing -- under the new rubric of an "opportunity action plan."

Tugging on the yellow-ribboned sympathies prompted by the war, he noted: "Our veterans will be coming home soon to a grateful nation. I want to ensure that their return is to a land of equal opportunity."

But there is little inclination to hit it any harder than that.

"Bush has been around Washington for 30 years. He knows this kind of popularity burns off faster than

those fake logs you buy at the drug store," said a former Republican congressional leadership aide.

"On foreign policy, he's become something of a guru, and that will probably last," the former aide, turned lobbyist, added. "But on domestic policy, Congress is going to just keeping beating the s--- out of him."

Mr. Bush said Friday that he was so eager to begin the complex diplomatic task left after the war that he had not yet been able to wallow in the pleasure of his victory.

He sees the successful defense of Kuwait by an international coalition that was authorized to act by the newly reinvigorated United Nations as a critical precedent toward the establishment of a "new world order" where the United States leads in enforcing the "rule of law."

In the future, Mr. Bush said, "I think when we say something that is objectively correct -- like don't take over a neighbor or you're going to bear some responsibility -- people are going to listen."

Besides intimidating would-be Saddam Husseins, the president and his aides see a host of other diplomatic possibilities growing out of the Persian Gulf conflict, including a relationship with the Soviets that is now almost free of ideology and an opening to readdress human rights issues in China.

Further, by honoring what the Saudi Arabian leaders at first considered a questionable commitment to send troops to the region, the United States has proven it can be a reliable partner. Administration officials say that reputation is particularly important in places like Latin America.

Some analysts warn against overconfidence based on a victory aided heavily by luck, such as the availability of a U.S. military machine built to fight a superpower but suddenly freed from Cold War responsibilities.

"It could be that we were at our peak in terms of our ability to deal with this," said Albert Carnesales, a professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Whatever the pitfalls, though, administration officials whose lonely task it has been to toil away on domestic issues say it comes as no surprise that he continues to prefer the drama of world leadership.

"Think about his two major initiatives of last year: Desert Shield, almost a unique situation where a president says, 'I will rise or fall on this' and goes ahead to make his own decisions; and the budget agreement, where he had so many people to try and please nobody was happy," one policy man suggested.

"If you were him, what you rather be doing?"

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