Gore vs. Bush: The Vision Thing
Richard Feinberg is professor of international
relations at the University of California, San Diego. He has served on
the National Security Council (199396) and at the State and Treasury
Departments. His most recent book is Summitry in the Americas (Institute
for International Economics, 1997).
San DiegoWhen George W. Bush talks about foreign policy, he likes
to surround himself with senior statesmen like Henry Kissinger and Colin
Powell. The governor from Texas may lack his own foreign policy credentials,
but he knows how to ask brand names for advice.
In response, the Gore team has been quick to accuse Bush of relying on
retreads from the Cold War years who are out of touch with the new challenges
facing United States foreign policyethnic conflicts, democracy promotion,
environmental devastation, pandemic diseases, labor and womens rights.
But the Bush campaign insists that Gore is vulnerable on foreign policy.
The Republican case against the Clinton-Gore record amounts to three basic
criticisms: 1) lack of strategic vision; 2) neglect of the military; and
3) excessive pandering to special interests.
Its strange to hear the son of George Bush accusing the Democrats
of lack of visionof course this was precisely the charge leveled
at President Bush, who being a practical man of action mocked "the
vision thing." But Republicansreinforced by many academic commentatorshave
for years been deriding the administration for its alleged lack of strategic
purpose or sense of priorities, its reactive ad hoc-racy and inconsistencies,
its crisis management mentality.
Further, the Bush campaign charges that the administration has allowed
the defense budget since the end of the Cold War to fall by nearly 40
percent. Military morale is being "undermined by back-to-back deployments,
poor pay, shortages of spare parts and equipment, and rapidly declining
readiness, "Bush said last September at the Citadel military academy.
Bush hints that the military does not trust its commander in chief, and
that Clinton has lacked the prestige to force the top brass to update
its Cold War thinking and to modernize its procurement patterns. Bush
promises a through review of military strategy, of our nuclear posture
and of our overseas deployments.
Finally, the Republicans claim that the administration has too often sacrificed
the national interest to serve one of its many domestic constituencies.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Brookings Institution scholar Richard Haas
denounced "the administrations profound politicization of foreign
affairs." At times, there are accusations that Democratic fundraisers,
including Al Gore, have put US foreign policy up for sale.
But can the Bush campaign make these accusations stick?
Certainly the Clinton White Houselike its predecessorsspends
much time on crisis management. But the Republicans have failed to bolster
their "lack of vision" barb with a clear vision of their own.
When pressed to articulate his priorities, Bush has emitted a laundry
list of US interests worthy of any State Department bureaucratand
hardly distinguishable from any number of Clinton-Gore boiler plate speeches.
Moreover, the cry for a "grand strategy" in the style of the
Roman Emperor Hadrian or the Prussian Chancellor Metternich has a distinctly
academic ring. It is hardly likely to enthuse Americans who pride themselves
on their down-to-earth pragmatism.
The Republicans charge that, absent a strategic vision, the administration
has lurched from one crisis to the nextand too often has deployed
peacekeepers in periperhal areas where US interests were low. Bush promises
no more "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions."
But the Bush team hesitates to name a peacekeeping mission it would not
have undertaken. Apparently, the Bush team recognizes that in Haiti, the
Balkans, East Timor and elsewhere, there was a vocal domestic constituency
for US involvement a constituency that Clinton pleased and that
Bush does not want to alienate. Public opinion polls show that Americans
typically approve of overseas missions that they believe serve a humanitarian
objectiveso long as the cost, especially in US lives, is low. Keenly
aware of these public preferences, Clinton has deprived critics of ammunition
by carefully keeping US troops out of harms way and by withdrawing them
as quickly as possible.
If "the vision thing" wont bite, how about "soft
on defense"? During the Cold War years, Republicans painted the Democrats
as naïve idealists who failed to understand that the world is a dangerous
place. But since 1980 the Soviet Union has disappeared and there are no
equivalent foreign threats. Not surprisingly, the American people are
feeling more secure. And just as Bill Clinton has repositioned the Democrats
toward the center in domestic affairs, so has he pulled his party toward
the middle in foreign affairs, in part by maintaining high levels of spending
for defense and intelligence. Military spending may have fallen significantly
in inflation-discounted dollars, but the current annual budget levels
of over $360 billion are intended to defuse any notion that Democrats
are innocents abroad. To ice the cake, Clinton has begun requesting even
higher budgets for the Pentagonand Gore concurs.
The Republicans are warning of new threatsinternational terrorists,
rogue states, and potentially a resurgent Russia or a revisionist China.
To assure Americas safety, Bush has endorsed an updated version
of Reagans star warsa shield against a small-scale ballistic
missile attack. But can Bush arrouse Americans with vague references to
unidentified terroristsand is an anti-missile defense the best answer
to a band of ground-based political malcontents? At a time when business
is crying for an end to economic sanctions against Iraq, Iran and Cuba,
will Americans rally against such "rogue" states? Further, are
the possible future threatshowever plausiblefrom Russia and
China imminent enough to justify a major new military build-up? And, Democrats
can ask, might not such a hasty build-up engender the very tit-for-tat
aggression we seek to avoid?
So Republican jibes decrying administration short-sightedness and military
weakness are unlikely to score major hits this year. However, Gore may
be more vulnerable to the attack that he is unduly influenced by narrow
pressure groups. There is the Buddhist Temple fundraising embarrassment,
and more recently his pandering to the Miami Cuban-American community
on the Elian Gonzalez case and his reticence on the China trade debate
in deference to organized labor. These incidents would seem to illustrate
the more general allegation that Gore will adopt almost any position to
But Republicans have to be careful with this charge of politicizing foreign
policy. Clinton/Gore are hardly the first administration to take into
account domestic interests in foreign policy (whether in the Middle East,
Central Europe, or Cuba, not to mention international trade and investment
matters). And Gore might respond: what is wrong with listening to constituents?
Why should foreign policy be immune from the democratic process? Do the
Republican foreign policy gurus believe they and only they are the legitimate
repositories of wisdom? In an era of anti-beltway populism, the elitism
implied by the Republican charge could easily backfire.
In any case, it is precisely Clintons sensitivity to domestic politics
that has minimized Democratic political vulnerabilities. There has been
a method behind Clintons foreign policy: namely, to address international
problems just in time and with just enough resources to avoid obvious
disasters and to pacify most critics. This tactical success infuriates
many international relations experts, but leaves Gore with few foreign
There is a more viable critique of the administrations foreign policy.
The administration has generally failed to match its rhetoric recognition
of the new challenges"the new security agenda for the Global
Age" in Gores own wordswith sustained senior-level attention
and real resources. In too many countries in the 1990s, the environment
has become more polluted, income inequality has widened and public health
has deteriorated. But these contemporary concerns are far removed from
the traditional security preoccupations of Bushs senior advisers.
So the Bush team is unlikely to land telling blows on foreign policy.
According to the polls, the public continues to consider Gore "more
trustworthy" to handle foreign affairs (by a margin of 4 percent
to 39 percent according to a mid-March ABC News/Washington Post poll).
Not that this may matter a great deal. Polls consistently register that
voters do not want this years campaign to devote much attention
to international affairs. America is at peace, the voters are not demanding
grandiose new slogans to describe Americas role in the world, and
the people may just believe that, even in foreign policy, government officials
should listen to their constituents.
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