[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]When Big Bush talks to Little Bush“Big Bush,” the Chinese term for former U.S. president George Bush, is coming to town for a three-day visit next week. Son Kil-seung, chairman of the Korean Federation of Industries invited Mr. Bush as part of an effort to improve relations between Korea and the United States. During his visit, the former president is scheduled to meet a number of business leaders and U.S. officials.
Big Bush’s visit comes at an auspicious time. The war in Iraq is moving toward a conclusion, as is the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program continues. The U.S. and much of the world economy is mired in slow growth with only 18 months before “Little Bush” is up for re-election. Big Bush sees his son facing an uncannily similar situation to the one he faced after winning the Gulf War in 1991: high poll ratings that slid rapidly as pent-up dissatisfaction with the economy grips the nation. In the 1992 election, Big Bush received the second-smallest percentage of the vote of any incumbent president running for re-election in the 20th century.
Little Bush knows this, of course, because he was close at hand during the historic slide in his father’s poll numbers. He knows that the economy may not turn in time and that the public may not have the patience to deal with another foreign crisis. Big Bush’s slide in the polls continued despite his masterful handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 1992.
To survive, Little Bush needs a strategy. With a war behind him and a weak economy in front of him, he must inject optimism into his administration by showing that he is providing good government. Good government in the context of the times means progress on rebuilding Iraq, continued efforts to improve domestic security and popular efforts to improve the economy. Rebuilding Iraq will require a multilateral approach, to say nothing of multilateral money, which requires that many diplomatic fences be mended. Popular efforts to improve the economy will require a move to the political center.
Big Bush is coming to Korea for reconnaissance on his son’s behalf. He fears that the hardliners in his son’s administration will pursue their ideological agenda despite the harsh political realities that are weighing on his son’s re-election chances. Big Bush wants to find out what Koreans are thinking so that he can help his son improve relations with South Korea while working toward a multilateral solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
To be sure, Little Bush is in charge of his administration. The only time that Big Bush offered advice in public was the much celebrated memo, drafted by former ambassador Donald Gregg, to his son in 2001 urging him to talk with North Korea. More recently, he has defended Colin Powell against Rumsfeldian neoconservative critics, suggesting that he is worried about their influence in the administration.
Their relationship is private, as one would expect of a father-and-son relationship. President Bush speaks to his father frequently, and no doubt asks for advice. He respects his father’s judgment, particularly on foreign policy matters. Most important, however, he trusts his father more than anybody else; the Bushes are a proud clan that does not trust others easily.
In the end, Little Bush usually takes his father’s advice. In the summer of 2002, the administration was torn by debate over whether to go to the United Nations or “go it alone” in pressing for regime change in Iraq. The hard-liners were all against going to the United Nations, but the president overruled them. Colin Powell’s and Tony Blair’s arguments weighed heavily, but in the end Big Bush’s opinion probably mattered most.
All of this leaves the business leaders who meet Big Bush with a special responsibility. What they say has a strong chance of collectively making it into Little Bush’s ear. To strengthen the hands of the Powellian multilateralists, they should tailor their remarks to what the two countries can do together to deal with North Korea rather than what they can do separately.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser