Our Sitting President

The Bush administration's inability to garner broad international support for its Iraq plans may go down in history as the result of the biggest diplomatic miscalculation since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed "peace in our time" in 1938.

Mistaken as he was, Chamberlain still had one up on Bush: The British leader actually got on a plane and visited the leaders involved in the Munich Crisis; Bush, however, did not visit any foreign destination from the passage of United Nations Resolution 1441 in November 2002 almost until the retraction of a second resolution this March. Only at the end of the diplomatic process did Bush travel, and then only to meet with leaders already in agreement with the United States. Other UN Security Council members, in contrast, became increasingly peripatetic as the debate wore on, with Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac all traveling widely for consultations.

Bush's disinclination to venture abroad, even during an international dispute, was characteristic. Since his election, Bush has been a reluctant world traveler, with an evident preference for Crawford, Texas, over foreign locales. This lack of interest in visiting the wider world explains a considerable yet unheralded part of the administration's failure to enlarge its Iraq coalition or enjoy widespread diplomatic success.

The administration has consistently failed not only at public diplomacy but also at personal diplomacy, the face-to-face meetings that remain the most robust foundation for international relationships. Bush's history of bristling unilateralism -- repudiating the Kyoto, Anti-Ballistic Missile and International Criminal Court treaties -- has made such personal relationships even more critical. Yet although Bush has received various heads of state in the United States, he has made few attempts to reciprocate their visits. This unwillingness to engage the world firsthand has reinforced international perceptions of American bullying and exacerbated the impact of the administration's foreign-policy gaffes.

Presidential personal engagement has always been important, but it became critical after the Cold War, when fears of U.S. domination compelled George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton to reach out as no American presidents had before. Though Clinton and the elder Bush took presidential travel to new heights, ever since Teddy Roosevelt -- the first incumbent to travel abroad -- presidents have increasingly racked up miles. Indeed, each administration has tended to engage in more international travel than its predecessor.

This trend may end with Bush. The president is on pace to record the largest decline -- 20 percent, according to U.S. Department of State records -- in international trips in the history of presidential travel. The administration is also on target to record the single biggest decline -- 35 percent -- in international mileage. On a per year basis, Bush has traveled 25,000 fewer miles than Clinton, and 5,000 fewer miles than Bush Senior. Moreover, during his first two years in office, the elder Bush made more trips to more countries than his son has thus far. Finally, Bush has been feted at state visits, one of the highest honors foreign governments bestow, at a slower rate than any president since Gerald Ford.

Even more glaring are the reasons behind the trips Bush has taken. In general, there are two rationales for international presidential travel: to attend summits of organizations or treaties in which the United States participates, or to engage in discussions outside the confines of pre-existing arrangements. Though summits are important, they are in many respects the family reunions of international politics -- perfunctory affairs where leaders publicly assent to pre-negotiated accords. Moreover, most summits are arranged years in advance; nations' prior relationships all but compel leaders to attend.

Presidential travel outside summits, however, is neither obliged nor constrained by previous agreements. Such travel requires the volition of both parties and is consequently conducive to forming real camaraderie between leaders. Not surprisingly, non-summit trips have catalyzed many significant U.S. diplomatic advances: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's post-Yalta visits to Middle Eastern and African states won support for his postwar plans, while Richard Nixon's opening to China and Jimmy Carter's Menachem Begin-Anwar Sadat peace deal were both also facilitated by non-summit travel.

Despite the benefits of such trips, an unprecedented proportion -- more than 80 percent -- of President Bush's international travels have been compelled by summit obligations. The proportion of such travel had previously peaked -- at about 50 percent -- during the Ronald Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton administrations.

Bush's homebody ways are even more jarring given his nomadic predecessor. Clinton holds almost all records for international presidential travel. He was the first sitting president to visit six continents. He was honored at the highest number of state visits, 15, and took 54 international trips, almost double the number taken by any other president. Further, Clinton spent both official and personal time in foreign countries, endearing himself -- and America, by association -- to citizens and governments abroad. Bush's summer retreats to the "Western White House" stand in sharp contrast to Clinton's vacations in Spain and Australia.

Though a comparison between the travels of Clinton and Bush is enlightening, it would be a mistake to consider all presidential travel to be of equal importance. While emphasizing foreign relations was a choice for Clinton, Bush does not have the luxury of avoiding the international arena. Since September 11, his presidency has been defined by foreign affairs. The UN-Iraq debacle and other policy missteps, which have contributed to America's current international ostracism, suggest that by staying home, Bush has failed to exploit the president's formative influence in shaping the world's perceptions of America.

The White House could argue that Bush efficiently replaces time-consuming travel with calls to world leaders; Bush "worked the phones" throughout the UN crisis. However, as is evident by the outcome -- the United States had to withdraw its second UN resolution on Iraq after it became clear the measure would be voted down -- such "virtual" diplomacy is no substitute for the real thing.

The current administration's retreat from the growing internationalism of previous administrations has plainly been a shock to allies. To regain momentum and support for U.S. foreign policy, Bush would have to spend time abroad establishing and re-establishing rapports with foreign leaders and their publics. He seems unlikely to make such efforts. America's sitting president will very likely remain a sitting president, much to the nation's detriment.