Today's date:
Summer 2000

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 (1993–96) and at the State and Treasury Departments. His most recent book is Summitry in the Americas (Institute for International Economics, 1997).

San Diego—When 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 policy—ethnic conflicts, democracy promotion, environmental devastation, pandemic diseases, labor and women’s 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.

It’s strange to hear the son of George Bush accusing the Democrats of lack of vision—of course this was precisely the charge leveled at President Bush, who being a practical man of action mocked "the vision thing." But Republicans—reinforced by many academic commentators—have 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 administration’s 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 House—like its predecessors—spends 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 bureaucrat—and 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 next—and 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 objective—so 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" won’t 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 Pentagon—and Gore concurs.

The Republicans are warning of new threats—international terrorists, rogue states, and potentially a resurgent Russia or a revisionist China. To assure America’s safety, Bush has endorsed an updated version of Reagan’s star wars—a shield against a small-scale ballistic missile attack. But can Bush arrouse Americans with vague references to unidentified terrorists—and 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 threats—however plausible—from 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 win.

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 Clinton’s sensitivity to domestic politics that has minimized Democratic political vulnerabilities. There has been a method behind Clinton’s 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 policy albatrosses.

There is a more viable critique of the administration’s 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 Gore’s own words—with 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 Bush’s 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 year’s campaign to devote much attention to international affairs. America is at peace, the voters are not demanding grandiose new slogans to describe America’s 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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