Bush To Meet With Mexican President

Thursday, February 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — With his first foreign trip in office, President Bush is upgrading the importance of Mexico and other Western Hemisphere alliances to U.S. diplomacy. ``The best foreign policy starts at home,'' he says.

Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox are likely to discuss immigration, drugs, trade and energy during their scheduled 7 1/2 -hour summit Friday amid the broccoli fields surrounding the village of San Cristobal, 210 miles northwest of Mexico City in the state of Guanajuato.

But the leaders — both newly elected presidents who favor western wear, enchiladas and ranch life — plan to stress their personal ties, not their nations' differences.

``I think it's going to be a good signal to the Mexicans, and others in our hemisphere, that the best foreign policy starts at home,'' Bush told reporters previewing the trip. ``We've got to have good relations in our hemisphere.''

The former two-term Texas governor is making a quick trip to a familiar country before taking the training wheels off his foreign policy: He travels to Canada in April for the Summit of Americas, and has overseas journeys penciled in for later this year.

When criticized during the campaign for lacking foreign policy experience, Bush pointed to his relations with Mexico. He made more than a half dozen trips to the country as Texas governor from 1995 to late 2000, though much of his work was ceremonial. He and Fox have met about three times, just enough for Bush to claim Fox as a pal.

While Bush wanted a safe way to open his foreign policy portfolio, Fox hopes the trip produces a sense that America takes Mexico seriously. That goal might have been achieved simply by Bush making the trip his first foreign venture.

In a triumph of style over substance, the staffs are planning several photo opportunities at Fox's ranch but suggest there will be no major policy developments. Bush plans a courtesy call on Fox's mother, and the local mayor plans to give the U.S. president a pair of black cowboy boots.

``They'll both get out and ride a horse and kick the manure off their cowboy boots, and little else will get done. But that might not be a bad thing,'' said Ray Sandler, a professor of history and a specialist on U.S.-Mexican relations at New Mexico State University. ``We have major differences and we've got to be able to talk to Mexico, so we might was well accentuate the positive.''

Bush is a big believer is what aides call ``personal diplomacy,'' a spinoff of the charm offensive he has launched against congressional Democrats. Aides say Bush hopes to build coalitions one national leader at a time, while projecting a sense of humility and respect to nations wary of the superpower.

Bush himself said he was going to Mexico ``to make sure that (Fox) understands that when I said friends — that we'll be friends — that I mean it.''

Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, Mexico has become a stronger economic player, recently surpassing Japan as the No. 2 U.S. trading partner after Canada. Fox, whose surprise victory last year ended seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico, has raised hopes in the United States with his commitment to democracy and promises to root out corruption.

Fox alarmed some U.S. officials by calling for opening the U.S.-Mexican border and declaring himself the leader not just of Mexico's 100 million residents, but also of the 18 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States.

Bush and Fox want to expand trade across the border, arguing that improving Mexico's economy is the best way to stem illegal immigration. ``What is good for Mexico is good for the United States'' is a Bush refrain dating to 1995.

Illegal migration as fallen off since Fox's election six months ago.

People aren't the only item Mexico is shipping across the border: The southern neighbor has begun selling electricity to energy-strapped California. Bush says a hemispheric energy policy is a long-term solution to U.S. energy shortages, and he plans to broach with Fox the possibility of loosening restrictions to allow new power plants to be built in northern Mexico with U.S. capital.

On the sensitive issue of drugs, Washington seems more willing than ever to end the annual review of Mexico's efforts in the war against drugs — a humiliating process that Mexico has fought to scrap.

Trade is a sticking point, particularly when it comes to trucks. An arbitration panel has ruled that the United States violated the NAFTA agreement by refusing to allow trucks full access to American highways. Bush says American motorists and Mexican trucks can someday share U.S. highways, but he has no plan yet on how to get there.

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