Bushies need to catch up on policy

January 09, 2001|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- Watching President Clinton's 11th-hour attempt to broker a Palestinian-Israeli deal, you feel as though you're watching a high-stakes poker game in which Mr. Clinton keeps doubling the bet. It's 4 in the morning now, all the money is in the pot, the room is thick with cigar smoke and the players are on their last hand. It's winner take all, and just before the cards are put on the table, Mr. Clinton turns to George W. Bush and says, "Say, would you mind takin' my seat?"

I'm glad Mr. Clinton has brought this Middle East peace game to a head. He has done the Lord's work, not only in clarifying what's a fair compromise but in clarifying who is up to it and who is not. In time, this will be seen as a real contribution. But for now, all this clarity is coinciding with a presidential transition, and the one thing that is not obvious is how the Bush team intends to deal with the hand it's inheriting.

Indeed, because foreign policy was virtually never mentioned during the campaign, and because Mr. Bush himself has no strongly expressed views, he's taking office with a vaguely defined foreign policy agenda, but with clearly defined problems. Yes, the Bushies have position papers. They have more attitude than articulated views. None of the issues they have clearly articulated views on are urgent, and on all the urgent issues, they have no clearly articulated views.

For instance, Mr. Bush favors building a national missile defense system -- but for now that is an idea for which there is no workable technology, no immediate enemy and no supportive allies. There's plenty of time to sort it out.

I will give a free copy of George Bush Sr.'s memoir, "A World Transformed," to any reader who can answer these questions: What will be the Bush approach to the Middle East, and how deeply does he intend to be involved? Historically, Democratic Arabists have tended to try to manage the Middle East by resolving the Palestinian conflict, while Republican Arabists favored working through the Saudis.

Which way will the younger Mr. Bush lean? Either way, the Middle East that he inherits is likely to be a roiling mess -- one that he not only won't be able to avoid but one that -- well, if he knew what was coming he would be down in Palm Beach County right now, hand-recounting votes himself.

What is the Bush policy on North Korea? President Clinton is leaving a deal on the table that he did not have time to consummate, by which Kim Jong Il would further constrain his missile program in return for food and other goodies from the United States. Is the Bush team really ready to withdraw U.S. troops from Kosovo and Bosnia, at a time when our allies would totally oppose that and both countries may be starting to mend a bit? Mr. Bush has expressed a desire to be tougher toward Iraq, but the U.S. does not have a single Arab ally ready to openly cooperate with such a policy.

Mr. Bush has appointed proven executives -- Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice -- to tell him what he should think on foreign policy, but none of them has wrestled closely with these issues for years. So they will have to appoint Republican foreign policy deputies to tell them what they think. And, truth be told, the Republican Party generally has done very little creative thinking on foreign policy since George Bush Sr.'s day.

At the congressional level, Republican foreign policy has been dominated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Jesse Helms, a nasty isolationist who virtually never travels, is convinced that China is still Maoist and Russia still Marxist, and is against virtually every multilateral global institution or operation. Those Republicans who did not agree with Mr. Helms spent most of the last eight years simply snickering at the Clinton foreign policy, implying that when the Republican "grown-ups" got back in, things would be different. But few have laid out a Republican alternative to Mr. Clinton's view that America's central role today is sustaining globalization -- economically, politically and militarily.

This vacuum was also the result of many Republican foreign policy figures wanting to get back into the new administration. Therefore, they were reluctant to write anything too daring or anything that would engender the wrath of Mr. Helms, who gets to confirm them.

So the grown-ups are back, but both they and their kids will have a lot of homework to catch up on. Don't worry. They've still got less than two weeks.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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