by Steve Chapman
sometimes gush a bit when talking about their kids, so you have to excuse former President George Bush if he gets carried away in making the case for his son, the presidential candidate. Asked if George W. knows as much about foreign affairs as he did when he arrived in the Oval Office, Dad replied, "No. But he knows every bit as much about it as Bill Clinton did."
Swell. Eight years ago, Republicans warned the American people of the dangers of turning the leadership of the Free World over to a greenhorn governor who wouldn't know Bahrain from Bolivia. Now they're using Bill Clinton as a model.
As if that weren't high enough praise, the senior Bush kept talking. In an interview last week with The New York Times, he was asked if his son knows as much about foreign affairs as Al Gore. "Gore's had eight years of experience there," Bush admitted. But never mind: "You get good people. George knows enough to do that ... "
Message: Worse than Gore is today, but no worse than Clinton was eight years ago. Sound like a good campaign slogan?
Republicans who in 1992 stressed the critical importance of international expertise have developed a new tolerance for foreign-policy novices. Back then, they extolled Bush the Elder's vast knowledge of the subject, based on his service as ambassador to the United Nations and China, his missions abroad as vice president, and his prosecution of the Persian Gulf War.
President Reagan made a campaign speech praising Bush as "a trustworthy and level-headed leader who is respected throughout the world." And his opponents? "Foreign policy to Ross Perot and Bill Clinton is just that -- foreign," sniped Republican Party chairman Richard Bond. When Pat Buchanan appeared at the GOP convention to get behind the party nominee, he said that Clinton's foreign experience "is pretty much confined to having breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes."
An unkind observer might point out today that George W. has international experience only in the sense that Texas, as the tourism slogan says, is "like a whole other country." The father was on a first-name basis with every foreign leader who mattered. The son, when a radio talk show host quizzed him on who was in charge of several important foreign countries, couldn't even come up with last names.
Being unschooled on international relations is not entirely his fault. Governors have little to do with such matters, beyond the occasional trade mission to urge foreigners to buy Idaho potatoes or Texas watermelons. They are obligated to focus on more parochial concerns, and they are wise to admit as much. When he was first running for president, Clinton made an unintentionally comic effort to enhance his foreign-policy credentials by reminding voters that he had served as commander-in-chief of the Arkansas National Guard.
But there was nothing to stop Bush from boning up on the subject on his own. And he does not inspire confidence when he suggests that his unfamiliarity with regions east of Kennebunkport isn't important because he can always find smart people to tell him what he needs to know.
This brings to mind William Kristol, the neoconservative policy intellectual who, after joining the staff of George Bush's vice president, became known in Washington as Dan Quayle's brain. Bush adviser Condoleeza Rice may be the best foreign-policy thinker any president could have. But it would be comforting to know she won't be doing all the thinking.
The Clinton experience, contrary to Papa Bush's suggestion, offers no grounds for optimism. Clinton's foreign policy in his first term consisted mainly of taking promises he had made during the 1992 campaign and breaking them.
He vowed to cut off normal trade relations with China, then embraced them. After criticizing Bush for failing to take tough military action in Bosnia, he shied away from doing it himself. He said Bush's insistence on returning boat people to Haiti was "cruel" and "illegal," which didn't prevent him from doing the same thing.
What Clinton learned is that it's a lot easier to formulate U.S. foreign policy at campaign rallies than in the Oval Office. International relations, unfortunately, is not one of those subjects you can master between Nov. 7 and Jan. 20, or even between the time you become a presidential candidate and the time you enter office. It takes years of study, thought and travel -- an effort that Al Gore, for example, has made, but Bush has not.
Eight years ago, Republicans warned us that it was risky to elect a president who would need on-the-job training in dealing with our foreign allies and enemies. It turned out they were right. So why do they want to run the experiment again?
July 17, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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