San Diego Union-Tribune

16-Feb-2001 Friday 

(Page A-1 )

Bush's goal: New kinship with Mexico 

George E. Condon Jr. 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- Proclaiming hemispheric solidarity and pledging to work hard at building a new relationship with the United States' neighbor to the south, President Bush leaves this morning for a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

The 7 1/2 -hour visit will be Bush's first venture to a foreign country since he took office last month and, despite the intended informality of the setting, he faces an agenda of issues long resistant to diplomatic resolution.

Along with the familiar U.S.-Mexican issues of drugs, immigration and trade, the California power crisis has pushed the matter of energy policy onto the agenda. But officials in both countries have warned in advance of Bush's arrival that Mexico offers no quick solution to the threats of rolling blackouts that haunt California daily.

In fact, U.S. officials point out, Mexico faces its own impending energy shortages and is in dire need of massive outside investments.

During his presidential campaign, Bush spoke often of a future hemispheric power grid stretching from the Yucatan to the Yukon. But the president made no mention of power in a preview of the trip he offered during a speech at the State Department yesterday.

"Some look south and see problems," he said. "Not me. I look south and see opportunities and potential."

That, he said, was the message he will carry to Fox's sprawling ranch in San Cristobal, near Leon in Guanajuato state. The decision to accept Fox's invitation was meant to show American delight at the blossoming of democracy symbolized by Fox's election last year as the first opposition president in 71 years.

"The door is open to a closer partnership with the United States," Bush said. "But nothing about this new relationship is inevitable. Only through hard work will we get it right."

The president said he wants to get Fox's views "on expanding trade throughout the hemisphere, on safe and orderly migration, on expanding educational opportunity for all our children, and what we can do together to fight drug trafficking and other types of organized crime."

For perhaps the first time since 1909, when William Howard Taft became the first U.S. president to go to Mexico to meet his counterpart, the agenda has been largely set by the Mexicans.

"We're not used to that," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy forum on hemispheric affairs.

The unusual assertiveness of the Mexicans, analysts agree, is attributable to several factors: Bush's newness in office, the lack of a new "Mexico team" in the State Department or the National Security Council, Fox's heightened moral stature because of his democratic underpinnings, and, remarkably, Mexico's new status as the No. 2 trading partner to the United States.

"The Bush administration is playing catch-up. They're trying to get settled in and work on an agenda," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The Fox administration had a very definite head start on this meeting's
preparations."

Although also new to office, Fox has had more time to prepare, giving the Mexican government an advantage in pushing for more substance in the summit. The U.S. team is willing to talk about irritants in the relationship, but is putting more stress on the personal aspects of the meeting.

"Establishing the relationship is the most important thing," said a senior administration official yesterday. Over protests from reporters, she said she could not be identified by name.

"This is an effort for the two presidents to establish a really good relationship so that when there are difficult issues on the agenda they feel they can talk about them," the official added.

But she spoke about Bush's optimism heading into the talks. "The president has a very clear sense that we have a historic opportunity here to turn a new page in U.S.-Mexican relations," she said.

Those relations are generally considered to be their warmest in decades.

"There is a feeling that this is a magical moment when all of the
constraints that have crippled this relationship and made it less than a full-fledged alliance may lift," said M. Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the center.

Thomas "Mack" McLarty, who was President Clinton's special envoy for Latin America, said Fox is the first Mexican president to be viewed as a potential partner with a U.S. president.

"The relationship between the United States and Mexico has never been more equitable than it is today," McLarty said.

Bush enjoys good ties in Mexico that he formed as governor of Texas.

But he is unlikely to give Fox all he wants. Bush particularly stops short of embracing Fox's call for free movement of people across the border.

Bush also has yet to endorse Fox's objections to the annual process mandated by Congress in which the United States has to "certify" Mexico's anti-drug efforts.

Bush also wants to hear Fox explain his views on Cuba, with many of Bush's advisers withholding judgment until they see what Fox does in an upcoming annual human rights vote by the United Nations in Geneva.

But Bush has scored points in Mexico by embracing a decision last week ordering the United States, as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, to permit Mexican trucks north of the border.

"What the Bush administration has done so far is trucking and this trip, and that's about all they can do so early," said Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard
professor.

That -- coupled with Fox's democratic credentials -- contributes to the feelings of good will surrounding the summit.

"President Fox enjoys enormous prestige in the United States," Baer said. "That counts for a lot. It is partially responsible for the honeymoon andthe festive spirit that is going to surround this meeting. This is going to be something of a love fest."