On His Asia Trip, Bush Stays Diplomatic

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Did George W. Bush kill chances for peace when he condemned North Korea as evil? That's what everyone wanted to know from South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung last week as President Bush stopped in Seoul on his three-city tour of Asia. Kim stayed silent when asked a question along these lines at a press conference. American officials were puzzled by the non-answer, but a senior South Korean official was not. "Kim Dae-Jung and President Bush do not need glasses," the official told me. "They both see North Korea clearly, but president Kim leaves his tongue at rest. President Bush has an iron tongue."

Last week, George W. Bush was doing his best to bite that tongue. The phrase "axis of evil" has been all too effective in pressuring North Korea, Iran and Iraq, say White House officials, and now that Bush has rattled the cups, the plain-spoken Texan has to prove he isn't quietly moving bombers into place. So throughout his six day jaunt Bush never whispered the controversial "bloody term," as Colin Powell calls it, and he caused more stir with his diplomatic tones than his war cries. The apparent course change left nervous allies wondering whether Bush was on an Asian holiday, deferring to his temporary hosts, or whether his appeals to diplomatic understanding represented a nuanced approach to the second phase of his war on terrorism.

Bush has no problem expressing his personal feelings about foreign policy. He often uses the first person when talking about American aims, as he did when talking about North Korea. "I believe in freedom," he said, summing up his hard-line approach to the rogue nation, as if that were all that needed to be said. "He sees no shades of gray," says National Security Adviser Condi Rice.

This up from-the-gut approach is credited with providing the clarity needed to rout Al-Qaeda, but Bush's continued directness nourishes the image, particularly among America's European allies, that he will leave the rest of the world behind, imperiling the post-Afghanistan peace, efforts to stop weapons proliferation and chances for regime change in Iraq. South Korea had taken Bush's war-like talk so seriously he had to reassure them he wasn't planning to invade the North. Ever since Bush inducted the Communist hermitage into the "axis of evil," South Korea has been nervous that their enraged neighbor might lash out.

To lower the boil, Bush issued invitations instead of threats. Standing in a gleaming unused train station at the dead end of a line meant to connect both halves of the peninsula, he beckoned the North to link their tracks to all of the riches of democracy on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone. Privately, the administration told South Korean officials that they would be reaching out in more formal ways in the coming weeks. Bush also asked Chinese leader Jiang Zemin for help making the connections ,just as he'd tapped Japanese leaders two days before in Tokyo for their help reaching out to Iran.

At Tsinghua University in Beijing, Bush was wearing his foreign policy on his sleeve again. He was almost child-like in his eagerness to connect with the next generation of Chinese asking him questions first in their native tongue and then again in nearly flawless English. To the frustration of his translator, Bush interjected new remarks while she was catching up with his old ones. The message was blunt: liberty and religious freedom will make China a great power. But Bush also leavened his moralizing. "America has its own faults and problems," he told the audience packed in the narrow marble hall. "We are on our own long journey towards justice."

Honesty wooed the Beijing audience, but Bush's famous bluntness kept them at the antacids elsewhere. On the very day he was offering measured inducements and encouragement to the North Koreans, the president couldn't help a little growling from the DMZ guard tower. After peering through binoculars at the North Korean Peace Museum that displays axes used to kill two American servicemen, he yelled: "no wonder I think they're evil." In public and private, it has also become clear that Bush has a swelling disdain for European officials, relegating the pesky nit-pickers to the itchy class in which he has banished university elites, journalists and blow-hard members of Congress. He echoed Colin Powell's quip that the French foreign minister suffered an attack of the vapors when he suggested the "axis of evil" formulation was simplistic. In a private meeting with Japanese officials, it was Powell who had to explain what "apoplectic" meant to his counterpart when Bush used that word to refer to the European overreaction to his global warming stance. The president sees many of his European critics as incapable of understanding what it means to be a leader.

Before leaving China, Bush toured the Great Wall. "Same wall, different country," he said of the 27 years since he had first visited when his father was U.S. representative to the Middle Kingdom. The father and son had dinner 15 hours later back in Washington, which was a thrill for 41 who could tell old stories about a country he remembers fondly. For the current president, it was undoubtedly a chance to finally let his tongue go free.