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Dole, Administration Fall Short in Articulating a Creative Asian Policy

May 13, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — "The more you read and observe about this politics thing," Will Rogers once noted, "you got to admit that each party is worse than the other." The aphorism came readily to mind last week after the first foreign policy skirmish of the 1996 campaign.

On Thursday, Bob Dole delivered a long-awaited speech about American policy toward Asia, after weeks of wrangling within the Republican Party and among the foreign policy pooh-bahs about what he should say. (The speech wasn't delayed, Dole quipped, it just wasn't finished.) In response, the Clinton administration--campaigning as though it were late October--hurriedly trotted out Vice President Al Gore to deliver a response.

Neither side came out looking particularly good. Dole gave a remarkably conventional, backward-looking address, distinctive more for its largely accurate critique of the administration's vacillation than for any new ideas of his own. He read the hourlong speech as though he had never seen it before.

Dole's strongest proposal, for ballistic missile defense in Asia, seems to be more a boondoggle for the American defense industry than a cure-all solution to Asia's problems. So far, even Japan, South Korea and Taiwan--the supposed beneficiaries of these systems--are less than thrilled with the idea. Dole gave the ballistic-missile proposal a pompous, inflated title reminiscent of the names of bills introduced on Capitol Hill: the "Pacific Democracy Defense Program." He avoided any discussion of the tough questions raised by this proposal: How many billions will it cost? Doesn't this amount to a proposal for containment of China? (Or, if not, how would Dole persuade Beijing it isn't?)


For his part, the vice president avoided saying anything particularly thoughtful in response. He seemed jittery, flanked by a host of national security advisors who listened to reporters' questions and then quietly passed Gore notes and briefing books aimed at helping him. Gore's job was to minimize and explain away Dole's criticisms of the administration while trying to exacerbate disputes among the Republicans. The Clinton strategy, it appears, will be to run the 1996 campaign against Patrick J. Buchanan; this serves Clinton's interests, by making Dole appear to be the me-too candidate.

What can be learned about where foreign policy is headed in the upcoming campaign from these opening salvos?

First, that Dole is not going to dabble in Buchanan-style isolationism. Second, that Dole is going to take the very traditional Republican approach of trying to show that he is more of a hawk, more of a champion of American power, than his Democratic opponent. And third, that administration officials are going to respond, in the classic and problematic fashion of John F. Kennedy, by showing that they are just as hard-nosed as the Republicans.

Asked whether the administration's policies concerning Taiwan have been too ambiguous, Gore testily shot back: "Perhaps some people can see the steady deployment of an aircraft carrier as ambiguous. The Chinese did not."

Thus does a serious and important national security action, Clinton's dispatch in March of two aircraft carriers to the seas near Taiwan, become a card to play in a presidential campaign. It was a reminder of the Cold War politics of the past: Democratic Party candidates invoking the use of force in order to defend themselves against Republican accusations of weakness.

As for individual Asian countries, here is a rundown of how the 1996 presidential campaign shapes up after the Dole speech:

VIETNAM: Vietnamese Ambassador to Washington Le Van Bang, who was in the audience at Dole's speech, looked relieved afterward. Dole said remarkably little about Vietnam, even though he had only last summer been one of the principal opponents of Clinton's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi.

"The decision has been made, but the case is not closed," Dole said. He argued that accounting for missing American servicemen should be the top U.S. priority in dealing with Vietnam. This already happens to be official administration policy.

What is more significant is what Dole did not say. He did not oppose the establishment of trade relations between the United States and Vietnam, instead arguing this should occur only after the "fullest possible" accounting for American POWs.

Dole's decision to de-emphasize Vietnam as a political issue may reflect the fact that the national security advisor to the Dole campaign, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was one of the leading proponents of normalization.

KOREA: This could emerge as a campaign issue this fall, if Dole figures out exactly what he wants to say.

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