Little Shift in Foreign Policy Under “President” George W. Bush

Little Shift in Foreign Policy Under (President) George W. Bush Stephen Zunes With the likelihood that Texas Governor George W. Bush will become the next president of the United States, there needs to be serious thought as to what kind of foreign policy can be expected over the next four years. The short answer is that there should be little difference between the old administration and the new administration. Yet there are some differences which deserve attention. Exit polls indicate that a solid majority of Americans supported Gore over Bush on the issues and that Bush’s support was based more on personal characteristics. An important exception appears to be foreign policy. At first, this would seem quite odd, given that Gore—as the most engaged vice-president in history on policy issues—clearly had demonstrable knowledge and leadership in this area, while Bush’s gaffes when commenting on foreign policy issues have become legendary. Yet, during the debates, despite very little disagreement on particular foreign policy issues (much to the dismay of many liberals and progressives supporting Gore), Bush was able to strike a chord among Americans with his contention that the U.S. may have overextended itself. In certain respects, the disagreement paralleled the debates between liberal internationalists and isolationists of the pre-cold war era, though even this was more from how the two opponents caricatured the other’s position than any great differences in actual policy. The main criticism of Clinton/Gore foreign policy stressed by Bush in the campaign was an alleged lack of preparedness and weakened military, though, ironically, Clinton and Gore had reversed the build-down of forces and reduction in military spending initiated by Bush’s father and his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. The younger Bush’s charges seemed to be based primarily on concerns of an alleged over-extension of forces to support United Nations peace keeping forces, though in terms of both financial costs, equipment and personnel, support for such UN operations are relatively small relative to overall U.S. military spending, logistics, and deployment. One of the major concerns being raised by both foreign and domestic international affairs analysts is Bush’s embarrassing ignorance about foreign affairs, compounded by the view that he has not been known to be a quick study on issues with which he has little background. His supporters have argued that that should not be a problem, given the high-powered experts, consisting of retired General Colin Powell and some of the conservative intellectuals at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who will be at the core of the new Bush administration’s foreign policy team. Even those who do not agree with their positions on key foreign policy issues recognize that it is indeed an experienced and knowledgeable group. At the same time, foreign policy—far more than domestic policy—requires strong presidential leadership. Foreign leaders often need to be persuaded personally by the president in order to agree to support U.S. initiatives, at which Clinton was known to be skillful. Critics of U.S. foreign policy could take the cynical view that this might actually be a good thing, in that it might forestall military interventions and other questionable actions by the United States. More likely, however, it would just encourage unilateral actions and lessen the likelihood of moderating U.S. policy. A new Bush administration, therefore, would likely find itself more at odds with traditional American allies during times of crisis than the Clinton administration. Indeed, despite concerns of some isolationist tendencies by George W. Bush, his posture actually appears to be more unilateralist. In one sense, this is a continuation of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s dictum that the U.S. will act “multilaterally if we can, unilaterally if we must,” yet it is likely that a new Bush administration will find itself even more inclined than the current administration to opt for the latter. U.S. contributions to internationally mandated peace keeping efforts will likely lessen, in terms of money, materiel, and forces, though unilateral military actions—such as the Clinton administration’s use of air strikes against Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Afghanistan—will likely not. Bush has articulated far bolder initiatives toward nuclear disarmament than did Gore, leading to charges from the Democrats that Bush would endanger U.S. security, which Gore believed required the continued maintenance and development of a large nuclear arsenal. At first glance, this gives supporters of de-nuclearization some hope. Unfortunately, the Bush plan is predicated on the development of a large anti-missile defense system. In order to develop the system supported by Bush, the SALT I treaty—long considered to be the foundation of nuclear arms control—would have to be unilaterally rescinded. This could result in a dangerous new arms race with Russia and China. Bush seems more open than the current administration to removing nuclear weapons from high alert and to initiate unilateral cuts in the nuclear arsenal, but he opposes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Despite skepticism about closer cooperation with Russia, he supports continuing the current policy of assisting former Soviet states with dismantling nuclear weapons. Some liberals have expressed concern that a new Bush administration would be far less likely to stress labor rights and environmental concerns in the pursuit of economic globalization. It is highly unlikely, given Bush’s strong support for the prerogatives of big business, that he would take any leadership in this area. Yet despite some sympathetic rhetoric, the Clinton/Gore record was poor as well. Like the outgoing administration, Bush supports the ongoing Israeli repression in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and has rejected demands that Israel abide by UN Security Council resolutions requiring evacuation of the illegal settlements and withdrawal of occupation forces. Also, like the current administration, he opposes Palestinian independence outside of Israeli strictures. He has even tried to place himself to the right of the Clinton administration by complaining that they pushed for a peace agreement too quickly and that they too openly supported the centrist Israeli Labour Party against the rightist Likud Bloc. However, Bush’s support of Israel appears to be based more on pragmatic concerns about Israel’s support for American interests, so he may therefore be more willing to push Israel to compromise if its ongoing intransigence threatened the overall stability in the region. Gore’s support for Israel appears to be more hardline and ideological. Bush supports the ongoing sanctions and bombing of Iraq and has criticized the Clinton administration for allowing the coalition which supported the Gulf War to fall apart, not recognizing that it is the growing moral and legal concerns about the policy itself which has led to the growing rift. He has called for increased support for Iraqi opposition groups to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Like the current administration, Bush supports ongoing military aid to the repressive government in Colombia and supports closer economic ties with Latin America. Also, like the current administration, Bush supports continued strict sanctions against Communist Cuba but closer economic links to Communist China. He quite openly declared his lack of interest in African affairs, believing that what happens on that continent has little relevance to American security interests. Bush believes that the U.S. should not pay its dues to the United Nations unless the American share is reduced and “the UN’s bureaucracy is reformed.” Finally, there should be mention that Clinton’s foreign policy likely cost his vice-president the election. According to public opinion polls, a majority of Americans oppose Clinton and Gore’s support for dramatically higher military spending, arms shipments to repressive governments, free trade without adequate safeguards for worker rights and environmental protection, support for Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonization of parts of the West Bank and Gaza, opposition to the treaty to ban landmines, and similar policies. As a result, many thousands of Americans—including voters in such states as Florida, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, where the Nader vote likely cost Gore a majority of the electoral college—opted for the Green Party presidential nominee. During the campaign, Ralph Nader rarely even mentioned foreign policy outside of his opposition to the corporate-friendly economic globalization of the World Trade Organization and other multilateral institutions. Yet the Green Party platform—which called for reducing military spending by half over the next five years, suspending military aid to governments which violate human rights, vigorously pursuing nuclear disarmament, and promoting sustainable development in poor countries—appealed to broad segments of the population disgusted with the foreign policies of the two major parties. This may be a warning to the Democrats that, in the future, they cannot take for granted the votes of those concerned with peace, human rights, and international law. Indeed, progressive changes in U.S. foreign policy—from Vietnam, to nuclear arms control, to Central America, to South Africa, to East Timor—have come not from electing presidents who advocated positions in support of peace and human rights, but from popular movements forcing the administration in office to change their policies. Whoever the final victor is in this disputed presidential race, that fact will remain unchanged. Stephen Zunes < [email protected] > is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. to receive weekly commentary and expert analysis via our Progressive Response ezine. This page was last modified on Wednesday, April 2, 2003 1:37 PM Contact the IRC’s webmaster with inquiries regarding the functionality of this website. Copyright © 2001 IRC and IPS. All rights reserved.