San Diego Union-Tribune


18-Feb-2001 Sunday 

Fox, Bush hug, smile; now comes real work 

George E. Condon Jr. 

SAN CRISTOBAL, Mexico -- There was something very familiar about the backslaps, bonhomie and bear hugs on display when President Bush met Mexican President Vicente Fox on Friday. But, in what may be a significant change from past U.S.-Mexican summits, both sides left determined to match the rhetoric with real policy follow-through.

"The big message that came from the meeting is that we seem to be seeing a fundamental change in the status quo on some pretty important issues," said M. Delal Baer, a leading expert on Mexico who is a senior fellow at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Baer said it is likely that Fox and Bush meant it when they promised new thinking on such intractable issues as the migration of Mexican workers north of the border, drug trafficking and energy cooperation.

"I see these two presidents as being willing to think creatively and out of the box on these issues," Baer said yesterday. "We are seeing them challenge the status quo on immigration and go out of the box on other issues. Who, for example, would ever have thought we'd see Mexico and the United States talking seriously about energy cooperation?"

Baer characterized the talks in San Cristobal as "breakthrough approaches to old and thorny issues."

In Mexico, many analysts are cautiously beginning to believe that this is an American president who truly desires a partnership with a Mexican leader.

They are convinced that Bush, as a Texan, cares about them.

"Bush probably has a greater sense of Mexico's vital importance than any chief executive since Lyndon Johnson," said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary who specializes in Mexican politics.

But Grayson said Bush is surrounded by foreign policy advisers more interested in East-West challenges than North-South dialogue.

"The president finds his `in' box jammed with messages about places like Palestine and Iraq. So Mexico receives at best desultory attention," he said, adding that Mexico will stay on the administration's radar only if the president insists on that.

Even a new U.S. president's focus would be insufficient to push the migration-drug-energy agenda in creative directions if the new Mexican government were not willing to drop decades-old anti-U.S. rhetoric.

"Think about U.S.-Mexican relations 15 years ago," said Jorge Domnguez, a Mexican expert at Harvard University. "If someone asked you, `How would you forecast the foreign policy of Mexico on an issue of concern to the United
States,' you would say, `Easy. Tell me what the foreign policy of the United States is and the foreign policy of Mexico would be the opposite.' "

What was on display at Friday's summit is how much has changed in 2001. Mexico does not try to agree with the United States on everything. But, Domnguez said, they "try to find ways to work cooperatively and to work constructively with the United States."

Bush is the fourth consecutive American leader to work seriously to improve relations with Mexico. And Fox is the fourth consecutive Mexican president to shelve the reflexively anti-American stance to work with Washington.

"This is not just a fleeting policy. This is not just a momentary change," Domnguez said. "It is an extraordinary political change."

That change, so evident in the Fox-Bush talks, makes it possible for the two governments to search for real solutions. This raises prospects for a new temporary-worker program to be approved in Washington and for Mexico to
promise a crackdown on drug cartels -- and mean it.

What is also new is the personal chemistry between the two presidents, both former governors imbued with the energy of new administrations.

"U.S.-Mexican relations historically have been vulnerable to sudden unexpected bursts and conflicts," Baer said. "And it helps enormously if the two presidents can pick up the phone and resolve those kinds of problems."

The obstacles, of course, remain daunting. But Juan Hernandez, a top adviser to Fox and a veteran of his presidential campaign, said no one should doubt the chances of success.

"I come from the culture of a campaign where nobody thought we could win," Hernandez said. "Vicente Fox has put immigration on the table with the United States, and everybody's talking about it. I expect great things."

The first test of the "spirit of San Cristobal" comes in two weeks. That's because March 1 is the congressionally imposed deadline for Bush to certify that Mexico is battling drugs.

Mexico wants that requirement dropped. Bush has made no promises.

"If nothing happens by March, 1 . . . then this will be just more of the same," Domnguez said. "Maybe a few more hugs, but more of the same."