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Katrina could complicate Bush's ambitious foreign policy agenda

WASHINGTON—Since Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has put foreign policy and the "war on terrorism" at the forefront of his agenda, with broad backing from Americans.

But in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States, with stinging questions about the government's response—and worries about the effects of rising energy prices on the economy—the public appears to be demanding a change in priorities, at least temporarily.

That could crimp Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's ability to press on with the president's highly ambitious foreign policy agenda, even as the administration grapples with such complex issues as the war in Iraq and Iran's nuclear program, according to diplomats and analysts.

In the week since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Bush has had to fend off charges that the government's response was hindered by U.S. troop commitments in Iraq and elsewhere. He's had to send tens of thousands of additional National Guard and Army troops to hurricane-hit areas and has curtailed his schedule of meetings with foreign leaders.

An AP-Ipsos poll, taken before the full scale of the tragedy became evident, found that only 9 percent of Americans thought terrorism—Bush's defining issue for the last four years—was the nation's highest priority.

By contrast, 24 percent said energy and gas prices are the top worry, followed by 14 percent who named the economy and jobs. Only the situation in Iraq, chosen by 29 percent, rated higher in the survey of 1,000 adults taken Aug. 29-31.

Overseas, politicians and commentators are wondering about the impact on America's psyche.

"The debate starts to mount in the United States: Is it quite reasonable to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for war in Iraq when America is unable to protect its own citizens?" France's leading daily, Le Monde, editorialized Saturday. "Katrina could mark in history a rupture comparable with September 11, 2001."

Analyst Sever Plocker wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel's top newspapers: "In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Americans felt a deep sense of national pride over their solidarity and restrained, efficient response to the disaster. Now, they feel horror and anger."

Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have rejected criticism that the slow initial response to Katrina was because of military deployments to Iraq.

Bush and Rice have planned an aggressive fall season of foreign policy, beginning with a summit of 170 world leaders at the United Nations next week. Also on tap are the launch of a public diplomacy initiative to improve the U.S. image in the Muslim world and a possible Rice trip to the Middle East.

Bush had planned to host Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington this week, but the White House asked that the meeting be rescheduled to take place during Bush's trip to the United Nations, so he could concentrate on hurricane relief.

Rice, at a press briefing, said she wasn't concerned that public support for an active foreign policy might flag.

"Obviously, whenever there's something on the home front, people focus on the home front," she said. "But I think Americans are plenty sophisticated in their understanding of the world to know that the United States can't live in isolation."

Rice noted that about 60 countries have offered assistance to help hurricane victims. "I hope that, too, will remind Americans that we're all part of the same community," she said.

Steven Kull, a public opinion expert and director of the Center on Policy Attitudes in Washington, said the devastation from Katrina could weaken the galvanizing power of 9-11, which Bush has used effectively to rally the nation behind him and his foreign policies.

"This is a new powerful, emotionalizing, galvanizing, focalizing event. To some extent, it's going to displace that" and make the 9-11 images weaker, Kull said.

While Kull predicted no "sharp right turn" in public attitudes, he said the government's troubled response to Katrina will feed into an existing national sense that the United States is "overextended" in Iraq and elsewhere.

Accurately or not, many Americans have linked the slow initial response to Katrina with deployments to Iraq, and Kull said that feeling is likely to grow.

But it won't necessarily increase demands for an immediate Iraq pullout, he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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