WASHINGTON - It's like watching a horror movie in slow motion.
Former President George Bush gained lasting respect for having put together a coalition to fight the Persian Gulf War so that the United States wouldn't be alone in fighting Saddam Hussein and wouldn't alienate the Arab world.
In six months, his son, President Bush, has thumbed his nose at one international agreement after another with mind-boggling speed and mind-numbing disregard for what the rest of the world thinks. This was after he promised a “humble” foreign policy.
The most stunning of the discarded negotiations has to do with environmental protection. Where the United States was once the undisputed leader in trying to clean up the globe, it now is seen as the major naysayer. While 178 other countries - big ones, little ones, industrialized ones, developing ones - agree something must be done to prevent global warming from turning countries into deserts, flooding coastlines, and wreaking havoc, Mr. Bush demurred.
Mr. Bush said an agreement to curb carbon dioxide emissions is not in America's best interests because it would cost this country too much and lets poor countries off the hook. What strange arguments to make to the 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day, which Mr. Bush's Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, likes to say is the world's biggest problem.
Mr. Bush said the Kyoto treaty, now modified and, in truth, not totally popular with anyone, was “fatally flawed.” Yet as the world waited, he never offered an alternative. Grumbling Europeans argued they'd prefer an imperfect agreement than none at all. Now even if Mr. Bush finally comes up with a proposal, the momentum to push it has been lost, and he'll be greeted with skepticism and ho-hums.
At the same time, Mr. Bush insisted that more than 170 other nations meeting under United Nations' auspices watered down language in an agreement to fight illegal small-arms trafficking.
Reluctantly, they agreed not to restrict civilian gun ownership or forbid arms sales to rebel groups. The United States says rebel groups that want to overthrow dictatorial governments should have unfettered access to guns.
In Geneva, after seven years of work, most other countries were ready to finalize the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention - the germ-warfare treaty. But the Bush administration said no, the treaty would subject American drug and biotech companies to inspections that might jeopardize trade secrets.
The biggest issue where Mr. Bush has drawn a line between us and them is on missile defense, now with a price tag of $100 billion - if it works. Mr. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, huddle in one city after another plotting the future of the arms race while most of us haven't a clue as to what's really going on between them.
Mr. Bush's intransigence on missile defense while refusing to allay the fears of the rest of the world about its security is puzzling to them. The trouble with sending an inarticulate man out to articulate the rationale for something as emotional and unproven as Star Wars Redux is that it's become so muddled, even the players are confused. Mr. Bush wants to junk the ABM Treaty so he can deploy unproven technology to deflect weapons that rogue states might someday have and reduce U.S. and Russian warheads, the balance of which, as missile defense skeptics note, has kept the peace for 50 years.
The administration is furious with Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota for worrying aloud that Mr. Bush is eroding U.S. leadership in the world. “I don't think we are taken as seriously today as we were a few years ago,” Mr. Daschle says.
It's not that Mr. Bush is necessarily all wrong on myriad controversial issues confronting the United States. On some he is following traditional Republican ideology; on others he is expressing the doubts of some Democrats and Republicans alike.
And it's certainly not that Europe is always right. Its reluctance to do anything about the genocide in Bosnia until pushed by the United States was proof of that.
What is worrisome is that Mr. Bush doesn't seem to have an overarching plan to deal with the rest of the world. He's acting as if he believes isolation is not a bad idea, and that his own personal charm should be enough for traditional allies to trust him.
Mr. Bush has done what centuries couldn't do - driven Russia and China into each other's arms, signing a pact to bind the two countries to new military cooperation, and a quasi-alliance against NATO.
He has essentially told those who stir the boiling cauldron that is the Middle East to come back when they have a peace agreement, which won't happen. He has stepped away from taking a lead role in a global effort to stop the spread of AIDS.
Most jobs have a learning curve, but not the U.S. presidency. Mr. Bush saw his mistake in once pledging arbitrarily to remove U.S. peacekeepers from the Balkans. Future epiphanies could be more horrific.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.