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
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.
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.
Ten looming foreign-policy crises for our next
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.
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
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
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
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
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'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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