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Published: 3/12/2006

Are world events spiraling out of control?

WASHINGTON - Iran threatens to withhold oil and gas to cause us "harm and pain" because of our efforts to keep it from developing nuclear weapons. North Korea pays no heed to our admonitions to stop trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Iraq is descending into chaos. Peace in the Middle East seems as elusive as ever. Nuclear Pakistan is angry that President Bush gave nuclear India a sweeter deal than it got, permitting India to import nuclear fuel and technology despite thumbing its nose at the nonproliferation treaty.

Sudan is a tragedy in fast forward. China's government plans to jack up military spending. And so on. Is all this a blip on the radar screen of history or is it a bad harbinger?

A chill has descended on many in the White House, a worry that events are spiraling out of control. Perhaps it was the unraveling of the contract with a Dubai company to operate a number of major U.S. ports that finally woke up the administration.

When two top Republicans, Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, went to the White House to inform Mr. Bush that what the President thought was a routine deal to cede control over large U.S. ports to an Arab-controlled company was facing a congressional roadblock, Mr. Bush's reaction was that he was not changing his mind: The deal was a good one; the uproar was unmerited. The outcome was then ordained: Dubai Ports World would get out of the business of managing U.S. ports and sell the U.S. component to someone else.

The debate is not over, but in the White House, uneasiness is palpable. Yes, the boss is stubborn. But national security has been Mr. Bush's trademark. If two-thirds of Americans continue to think he is not doing a good job defending the country, the mid-term elections in November could result in a GOP loss of the House and the Senate. Mr. Bush would be a lame-duck president blamed for vastly weakening his party.

But what we're going through is about far more than politics. It's about how the United States is seen in the world, the staying power of its prestige, and its future role in keeping the peace.

Many Americans paid scant attention to Mr. Bush's recent trip to India and Pakistan. Yes, the Pakistanis were upset that the United States ignored the nonproliferation treaty to benefit India but not Pakistan, but so what? Pakistan hasn't managed to capture Osama bin Laden, thought to be hiding in its mountains.

But the rest of the world saw Mr. Bush playing footsie with friendly India because it's a huge trading opportunity for U.S. companies. They saw Mr. Bush giving India a wink and a nod to become a potential major nuclear power while ignoring past U.S. policy and at the same time futilely admonishing North Korea and Iran to keep their hands off nukes.

This used to be called "realpolitics," and basically it means that principles are all well and good unless they collide with the dollar, the backbone of American diplomacy.

But what Mr. Bush has done is boldly announce that the United States will abide by international rules only when they serve its purpose. Nonproliferation, which such eminent Republicans as Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana say is vital to America's security, means that the United States, a signatory to the treaty, must not provide civilian nuclear technology to any country refusing inspection of its nuclear facilities. India won't permit such inspection. Nor will it even promise to stop nuclear testing or developing plutonium for use in weapons.

What Mr. Bush has done is to say that because India is a friend, it has virtual carte blanche to develop unlimited numbers of nuclear weapons in secret without signing the nonproliferation treaty. It's OK to break the rules for India, our friend. We assume India will always be our friend, just as we once assumed that an Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein was best for us. We also are assuming that breaking with our principles on this won't matter when we try to explain how good our word is on other issues.

Mr. Bush still has to sell his agreement with India to Congress, just as he had to sell the Dubai port-control deal. He badly failed to do that, even though there were some good arguments for going through with it. The deal with India has far fewer arguments in its favor, and Mr. Bush is not on a winning streak.

What is troubling some in the White House is that when a president's foreign policy goes south in one area, it often takes a hit elsewhere. We need help with Iraq, with North Korea, with Sudan, with China, with the Middle East and with next week's crisis.

Such help is less and less likely to be forthcoming. That means the "harm and pain" promised by our enemies may be inevitable.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

Contact her at: amcfeatters@nationalpress.com



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