At home he must tackle the question of illegal immigration. His bid to solve the pending problems surrounding Social Security is still up in the air, while healthcare lingers. All these issues are significant for future generations and demand bilateral statesmanship. Instead they are fraught with political peril for a president whose party is confronted by mid-term elections this year, whose standing in public polls is down, and whose Democratic opposition thinks the Republicans are vulnerable. On top of it, rising gas prices are irritating the electorate.

If by some magical process in the next four or five months the US could capture Osama bin Laden, see enough stability in Iraq to start removing substantial numbers of US troops, and bring down gas prices, the president would be riding high. But the likelihood of all three taking place is thin indeed.

Iraq is the most pressing foreign problem. The nomination last weekend of Jawad al-Maliki as Iraq’s PM, a Shiite activist who spent 20 years in exile during Saddam Hussein’s reign, appears to have eased a long drawn-out political crisis. That government must win the trust of Kurds and Sunnis, as well as the Shiite majority, and rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, which is unable to provide reliable electricity and water. Elsewhere, we are likely to see defensive US policies in play. The US should prudently have contingency plans for the projection of military force. But all the signs are that the emphasis is on diplomacy, and alliances with countries of common interest.

The handling of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the US exemplified this non-confrontational strategy. Hu presides over a communist regime that has adopted many aspects of the free-market system to make China an exploding economic power. President Bush went on record with US distaste for China’s human rights abuses, even as US businessmen in Seattle, wooed Hu. The US president indicated coolness for China’s system of government but recognised China’s importance as a trading partner and its usefulness as an interlocutor with North Korea and Iran.

In part to offset China’s growing influence in Asia, the president recently visited India to nurture a relationship that has been on and off over the years. India is fast emerging as a significant economic power, although under a robust democratic system of government. Bush’s wooing of India included support for India’s nuclear power development, and even acceptance of its nuclear weaponry programme.

But Bush did not offer similar endorsement of neighbouring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. This has caused some tension in US-Pakistani relations. Pakistan has been a strong ally of the US in the war against terrorism. But it has been careless in allowing the export of nuclear expertise and materials to countries on the American blacklist, which the US does not appreciate.

Another problematic country the US is pursuing its “don’t rock the boat” policy is Russia. Vladimir Putin is proving a disappointment, having taken Russia in a new authoritarian direction by supporting Iran. But Bush said recently: “I haven’t given up on Russia.” He believes that even a cool relationship with Russia can be more useful than a hostile one. At such a delicate time, the president is treading gently with friends and foes alike.—The Christian Science Monitor