Although Bush’s remarks might sound like common sense, they fall more into the category of John Ford–movie bravado, and as such they undid years of delicate diplomacy. To be sure, some observers think Bush did the right thing — but no one believes he did so as part of any well-thought-out plan. “I think he stumbled into what should be the truth,” says William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, which has taken a hard line toward China. And Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, called it “a moment of unrehearsed common sense that is otherwise known as a gaffe.”
Immediately after Bush’s utterance, the White House went into high spin-control mode. “He wasn’t speaking normal Washington, DC, diplomatese,” the Washington Post quoted one administration official as saying. No kidding. The main problem with what Bush did — even if you agree that the United States should get tougher with human-rights-violating China — is that he bumbled into a “new” policy, lazily unaware of the consequences of his words. If Bush really wanted to alter US policy, he could have. But he shouldn’t have announced such a tectonic shift on Good Morning America. A real president would have let administration staffers — at either the National Security Council or the State Department — whisper to reporters that a shift was on the way. Next, a friendly Council on Foreign Relations type would have been enlisted to drop an op-ed into the New York Times on “Why We Should Defend Taiwan.” Then Secretary of State Colin Powell would have been sent somewhere like the Asia Society to opine on “American Interests in East Asia.” (Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright did exactly this when the Clinton administration wanted to put forward a new Iran policy a couple of years ago.) Finally, the president would have made a formal statement or speech.
The point of all this dancing around is that it allows information to seep out in a way that gives other countries the opportunity to react with some forethought. It prevents confusion that can lead to unexpected consequences — like wars, for instance. There’s no question now that Bush is a dangerous leader. Not only because he doesn’t know what’s going on in the world (as Hiller had already exposed), but mostly because he lacks the discipline to listen to what Rice and other foreign-policy whiz kids tell him. While some of his instincts may be correct, they are worthless unless he executes them properly. If he indeed desires a tougher line on China, then he needs to put advisers and aides in place to carry out his wishes. No one — least of all a president — can freelance when our relations with a world power are at stake.
In this context, it’s refreshing to consider the words and deeds of a pol who came to power with no big connections other than having once served as an aide to Joe Timilty. Last Thursday night, Israel held a gala celebration of its 53rd anniversary at the John F. Kennedy Library. More than 500 people attended — including Bob and Myra Kraft, the consuls general of 10 nations, and a handful of state legislators, including Representative Mark Falzone of Saugus, Representative Alice Wolf of Cambridge, and Senator Cynthia Creem of Newton. But the only high-ranking Massachusetts official to show up was Mayor Tom Menino. Among the missing were Governor Jane Swift, House Speaker Tom Finneran, and Senate president Tom Birmingham.
In fact, Menino did more than just show up. He gave a rousing speech. “The City of Boston will continue to strengthen our friendship with Israel,” the mayor proclaimed, drawing attention to the relationship between Boston and its sister city in Israel, Haifa. Menino also called for a return to the Middle East peace process.
Lost amid raucous debate over development issues are the ways Menino reaches out to Bostonians of all ethnicities and the role ethnic identity plays in his view of the city. Some of this is borne of necessity. Menino, after all, is Boston’s first Italian mayor — and the first non-Irish pol to be elected to City Hall’s top job in generations. But it seems genuine. For example, Menino opened the Office of New Bostonians in 1998 to help acquaint recent immigrants with the city. And last Monday, the mayor appeared at Wheelock College to introduce a presentation by Henry Louis Gates, the chair of Harvard’s department of Afro-American studies. Gates has just completed the third edition of Encarta Africana, a massive compendium of knowledge about African and African-American history. “It’s so important that young people understand where they came from and their heritage,” Menino told the crowd. “The diversity of Boston is the strength of our city.”
The neighborhoods and people of Boston are changing, and Menino seems to be out in front of those changes. In addition to whatever good feelings he has for Israel, he knows, for example, that the organized Jewish community is committed to literacy programs in the city. He’s also aware of the influx of immigrant Russian Jews who live in Brighton, the Fenway, and Mission Hill. By teaming up with Gates, Menino works with one of the most respected African-American academic leaders in the country — a person whose agenda consists of learning and education.
It may be unfair to focus the question of Menino’s vision so closely on development. As he himself puts it: “The mayor has to understand the diversity of our city.”
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.