[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
June 8 - 15, 2000


Foreign object

President Clinton has made a mess of international affairs. Is either candidate up to the job of forging a strong foreign policy?

by Seth Gitell

As President Bill Clinton crisscrossed the globe last week meeting with world leaders including Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, Americans could have been forgiven for thinking their international affairs were being steered by an adroit statesman. After all, peace appears to be at hand in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and Clinton is on the verge of historic breakthroughs with Cuba and Iran.

But those who thought that were wrong. International problems are simmering near the boiling point, and the only thing hiding that fact is the infamous Clinton spin control. US Representative Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania), a rare congressman who has made foreign policy a priority, says the next president is going to inherit a foreign-policy nightmare (see "Hot Spots," below left). "There's a train wreck coming caused by this administration. It's going to take 15 years to fix," he says. "The next president is going to have to move beyond the rhetoric."

Indeed, critics of the president from both sides of the political aisle have problems with how Clinton has conducted his foreign policy. Those on both the left and the right openly questioned the timing of Clinton's decision to launch cruise-missile strikes at Afghanistan and Sudan after the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa. Was it mere coincidence that the attacks diverted attention from his grand-jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky affair? Similar questions arose from Clinton's decision to launch Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing and missile campaign against Iraq that coincided with his impeachment. From the right, Clinton has been lambasted for using force inappropriately in the armed strikes against Iraq and Yugoslavia, and for ignoring problems until they get on television. And both sides are troubled by his Yugoslavia policy of high-altitude bombing -- much of it targeting civilians. The better military option would have been to use ground troops, but that would have been politically unpopular.

Even those who have largely supported Clinton want to see a more rigorous discussion of world affairs in the current presidential election. "I would wish that foreign policy would be a big question in the election," laments Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota). "We live in a world community. It crucially affects our lives."

When it comes to international affairs, both presidential candidates carry some baggage. George W. Bush's flunking of WHDH reporter Andy Hiller's foreign-policy pop quiz has formed an unforgettable impression: regardless of the high-powered advisers Bush surrounds himself with and what he says as a result of their prompting, the perception in the public's mind is that Bush is a dum-dum. Bush bears the additional burden of having inherited his father's name -- and his legacy of foreign-policy initiatives that went astray (see "Battle of the '80s-Era Presidents," This Just In, News and Features, May 19). This legacy is reflected in his coterie of foreign-policy advisers, which includes former Bush- and Reagan-administration officials Condoleeza Rice, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz. Perle and Wolfowitz are veterans of the foreign-policy establishment who advised Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson in the 1970s and fought the behind-the-scenes policy wars in the 1980s. One of Perle's nicknames is "the Prince of Darkness" -- earned for his deep suspicion of the Soviets and his opposition to the State Department's desire to adopt a softer line toward the Soviet Union during the Reagan years.

Hot spots

Ten looming foreign-policy crises for our next president


The People's Republic of China has nearly perfected its construction of the DF-31, a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, and is picking up the pace of its military upgrade -- its navy, for example, just received a shipment of state-of-the-art cruise missiles from Russia. Given China's growing closeness with Russia, it's fair to ask who the military build-up is directed at. That's a question the next president will have to grapple with.


The Russian economy is in shambles. The presidency is held by Vladimir Putin, who likes to boast about his service in the KGB. Putin's desire to clean up Russia may be the best thing for his homeland right now, but his stewardship threatens to usher in a newly confrontational relationship with America. The scene of Russian troops rushing into Pristina last year may be the harbinger of things to come.


The reformers in Iran are on the ropes. The trial of 13 Jews on trumped-up charges of spying, and the mistreatment of journalists, suggest that hard-liners are back in charge. The military is funneling funds into the long-range Shahab-5 missile, which is capable of striking Europe.


Saddam Hussein has been suspiciously quiet since the slap on the wrist of 1998's Operation Desert Fox. Former UNSCOM chief Richard Butler says Saddam is on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction. If Clinton is replaced by another Bush named George, will Saddam seek his revenge?

Middle East peace process

Chances are good that Clinton will be able to perform magic one more time and get Israel's Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority's Yasir Arafat together to sign some kind of deal. But in the Middle East, getting signatures at signing ceremonies is the easy part -- making the agreements stick is something quite different. Vice-President Al Gore would likely follow Clinton's lead if he were elected, but Bush carries his father's baggage in this area. Armed conflict is not out of the question.


These nuclear-armed powers are locked in a 50-year struggle over Kashmir. The governments of each are on shaky ground domestically, and China looms over both. This situation deserves attention.

Western Europe

With the always unruly French pushing for a united European force in conjunction with Germany and the others, how much longer will the EU tolerate the US-dominated NATO alliance? Cracks in NATO surfaced during last year's war in Yugoslavia. The next president will face a more united Europe that's less willing to go along with American dictates.


Operation Allied Force may have been more than a year ago, but just because no one's paying attention doesn't mean that all is well in the Balkans. Tension is intensifying between the Kosovar Albanians, the Serbs, and other minorities.


Congress is weighing a $1.7 billion aid package to Colombia, a country that is partially under the control of drug lords. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey is pushing for increased US involvement -- including military assets. Critics on the right and the left see the beginnings of a
Vietnam-style quagmire.

North Korea

Back to the future. A despotic Communist leader plus nuclear weapons and the Taepo Dong-2, a long-range missile, equals big-time danger.

-- Seth Gitell
Al Gore's problem is that he's so closely tied to Clinton. And as Clinton's foreign-policy failures come into focus, they have the potential to damage Gore. This was demonstrated at a recent conference sponsored by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government at the Charles Hotel. Ambassador Richard Gardner, who was billed as the principal foreign-policy adviser to Gore, addressed the gathering over dinner, emphasizing the need for the country to work more closely with international organizations -- starting with the United Nations. When one academic pointed out that it was the Clinton administration that failed to fund American cooperation in such programs, Gardner, who formerly served as Clinton's ambassador to Spain, quipped, "I am not here to defend the last eight years of the Clinton administration. They exiled me to Madrid." For the record, Gardner is not Gore's main foreign-policy adviser. That title has gone since 1984 to his national-security adviser, Leon Fuerth, who has guided the vice-president's interest in Russia.

Bush has at least one solid advantage over Gore when it comes to Russia: Gore had close ties to the country's former leadership, which has since been discredited. The point was brought home during a talk by Weldon at the May 22 conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A fluent speaker of Russian, Weldon meets frequently with his counterparts in the Russian duma; preventing the transfer of Russian missile technology to rogue states such as Iran and Iraq is at the top of his political agenda. In a conference room at the Washington Hilton, Weldon made his pitch through show-and-tell, theatrically pulling two small gadgets from a case. With the timing of an evangelist healing the sick, Weldon brandished first one object, then the other. He identified them as a Russian accelerometer and gyroscope used in missiles and explained that American agents interdicted a Russian shipment of these several years ago and then someone got them to him.

"We caught the Russians red-handed," Weldon said. "The Clinton administration didn't want us to do anything about it. They didn't want to embarrass the Russians."

Weldon says that as vice-president, Gore has been instrumental in helping the Clinton administration cover up for Russia. For example, Gore intervened to block legislation in 1997 and in 1998 that would have passed sanctions against Russian companies and entities that helped Iran develop missile technology. Gore called Weldon and a group of other legislators to the White House and told them to shelve the legislation in order to take the heat off Russia.

In fact, Gore was put in charge of crucial aspects of the United States' relationship with Russia, which is an unusual position for a vice-president. Gore has similar relationships -- or commissions -- with South Africa, Egypt, and Ukraine, but it is with Russia that he is most closely linked. He engaged in untold hours of special negotiations with former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in a relationship that Washington foreign-policy hands referred to as "Gore-Chernomyrdin." As an example of their closeness, when Gore received a copy of a CIA intelligence report accusing Chernomyrdin of corruption, the vice-president scrawled "bullshit" on the report, according to Weldon and others. But Chernomyrdin was later fired, and Gore's investment in him went to waste.

"The fact that he was so close to Chernomyrdin is a problem," says Marshall Goldman, a professor of Russian economics at Wellesley College. "The idea was that he would have on-the-job training and be one step ahead of everyone else. Yeltsin was a big disappointment, and now there is considerable concern about Putin."

Putin's ascendancy alarms experts such as Goldman because of his KGB background and his willing embrace of the strongman image. Putin has said, for example, "Democracy is a dictatorship of law. The stronger the state, the stronger the individual." Goldman points to such quotes as cause for concern.

Surely some of this was in President Clinton's mind when he met with Putin this past Sunday. The top issue for Clinton during the meeting was discussing his plans for a national missile-defense system, à la Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program. Early on in the Bush campaign, the GOP candidate talked about missile defense and ran evocative television ads about it; Clinton, with his keen political mind, is now taking on the missile-defense rhetoric to steal the issue from Bush. Still, Gore adviser Gardner, who spoke at Harvard, was critical of missile-defense efforts. "It's a threat to the Russians. It's a threat to the Chinese," he said. "These things are very divisive and not in the spirit of multilateral engagement."

Senator Wellstone, speaking to the Phoenix, was even more critical: "Missile defense could ruin the chances for arms control. Do I think we should invest billions of dollars on a missile-defense system? I don't think so."

Gore seems just as vulnerable when it comes to the United States' relationship with China, which is as crucial as its dealings with Russia. But Bush is weak too. Both candidates favored the recently passed Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China Act. It was bitterly opposed by the labor movement, and that hurts Gore more than Bush. But Bush has been a bigger proponent of trade with China than Gore has -- and his name alone recalls his father's unpopular decision to continue trading with China even after the Red Army crushed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Bush also supports a piece of legislation known as the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which tightens the relationship between the American and Taiwanese militaries -- and could spark armed conflict with China should that country strike at Taiwan. Speaking in Boston, Gore said the act would "build a wall when we need to build a bridge." And Gardner said the act "would unnecessarily provoke the government in Beijing."

In the end, though, China issues will hurt Gore more than they hurt Bush. Gore's Democratic colleagues are unhappy with the administration's support of the China trade act. "Trade is a huge fracture in the Democratic Party right now," says Wellstone, who -- along with other Democrats in Congress -- blames Clinton for raising the trade issue so close to the November election. If the Democrats want to elect Gore and retake the House, they need an enthusiastic base of labor support. But the recent House vote, when Clinton had to rely on House Majority Whip Tom DeLay to get the China trade bill passed, can only hinder Gore and the other Democratic candidates.

"I think Clinton's timing was off," Wellstone says. "It's a lose-lose proposition for the Democratic Party. You run the risk of a demobilized labor base, and I've never understood it. China can join the WTO without us. We don't have to vote on it."

Despite the China trade debacle and Gore's weakness on Russian policy, the reality is that Bush has more foreign-policy ground to make up than Gore. Although Gore can be blamed for some of the administration's mistakes, the vice-president has an established record on foreign-policy issues that goes back to his election to the House in the 1970s. Gore was one of the handful of Democrats who voted for the Gulf War, but he has also targeted the "new security agenda" of the environment, population, terrorism, and disease -- which he is trying to address through international cooperation.

Gore is also known to rely informally on Martin Peretz, the editor and owner of the New Republic, for advice -- a sign that the vice-president is willing to listen to more than State Department orthodoxy. And he is thought to be a more creative foreign-policy thinker than Clinton. For example, Gore backs the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which calls for lending American support to the opponents of Saddam Hussein, and he has sought a meeting with the leading opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress.

Bush, meanwhile, is still seen as the Andy Hiller flunkout who is his father's son. That's one reason his campaign has been rolling out so many policy-heavy speeches recently. A recent speech before AIPAC -- the same setting at which Weldon delivered his sharp critique of Gore -- marked a major test for Bush. Not only did he have to face the perception that he knows little about foreign policy, but he also had to confront an audience of American Jewish leaders who remember his father's tough treatment of Israel. During one policy flap, for instance, the elder Bush described himself as "one little guy" in the face of the pro-Israel lobby.

Candidate Bush took the stage confidently at the AIPAC event, looking far more presidential than he had during his New Hampshire escapades, and hit all his applause lines. "As soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the US ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital," he said. Recalling a helicopter trip he took during a visit to Israel after the 1998 election, he said, "What struck me is the tiny distance between enemy lines and Israel's population centers. [My guide] told me that before the Six Day War, Israel was only nine miles wide at its narrowest point. In Texas, some driveways are longer than that."

After Bush's speech, he devoted time to glad-handing with the audience and taking photographs with college students and AIPAC activists -- but he stayed well out of reach of the press. When a pair of reporters ventured too close, a Secret Service agent shooed them away, saying, "Governor Bush isn't taking questions. He's just taking a few photos and shaking a few hands."

The audience's reception was mixed at best. Some were turned off by Bush's attempt to play to the Benjamin Netanyahu right-wing crowd. Others felt Bush didn't go far enough. Many suspected that Bush didn't believe -- or even understand -- what he was saying.

Before Bush got into his limousine outside the Washington Hilton -- the same hotel where Reagan was shot -- his aides filtered out to their vehicles. Bush advisers Wolfowitz and Perle emerged, appearing ebullient. They were charged up, believing their candidate had done well. As Perle entered his car, he was asked whether Bush had meant what he said. "I think you could tell by watching him, couldn't you?", Perle replied. "He doesn't say what he doesn't believe." The door shut, and the car carrying Perle and Wolfowitz drove off.

In the wake of the Clinton presidency, world leaders will scrutinize the credibility of the new American leader -- be it Al Gore or George W. Bush. If people such as Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, or Slobodan Milosevic sense weakness, everyone could pay. And right now, neither candidate looks strong.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

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