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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Hopes for a Return of Bush Foreign Policy

October 14, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — As the Clinton administration struggles to come to grips with Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, it is tempting to wonder whether the George Bush administration might be doing a better job of handling America's relations with the rest of the world.

Memories of the Bush administration's foreign policy seem to be in vogue these days. "A World Transformed," the new book by the former president and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, recalls in detail the triumphal era when the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was reunified and America won the Gulf War.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, the governor of Texas and son of the ex-president, has emerged as a leading Republican candidate for president in 2000. If the U.S. economy turns sour, it seems increasingly possible that the GOP nominee could win.

And so the idea of a Bush Restoration is in the air. President Clinton, who has spoken so often of building "a bridge to the 21st century," probably didn't have in mind the prospect that there could be Bush administrations on both sides of his edifice.

At Washington's think tanks, universities and corporate offices, the first lieutenants of the last Bush administration--officials such as Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, undersecretaries of State Robert Zoellick and Bob Kimmitt and National Security Council aides Richard Haass and Douglas Paal--watch and wait, many of them hoping for top jobs in any future Bush administration.

Many of these former Bush officials are now among the severest critics of Clinton's foreign policy. "They are very bad at putting together coalitions and working alliances," Zoellick told The Times last week as Clinton and his aides were trying to work out with America's European allies a joint approach to the crisis in Kosovo.

All of which raises some fundamental questions: Why did the Bush administration seem to have an easier time in dealing with the rest of the world than Clinton administration officials do now? Were they just more skillful than the present administration?

It sometimes seems that way. It is hard to imagine Clinton putting together anything like the international coalition Bush built in support of military action against Iraq's Hussein. These days, America's approach to North Korea diverges from that of Japan; its policy toward Iraq differs from that of its European allies.

Clinton's national security team seems to jump from one crisis or presidential trip to another without working out its long-term strategy or spending time on the issues that are out of the headlines. Clinton's top advisors bicker in public. In the Kosovo crisis, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has seemed far more hesitant about the use of force than has Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Bush's new book makes clear how much time he and his top advisors spent on foreign policy--and how, at key intervals, a sense of purpose helped them overcome the notion that events abroad are beyond America's control.

Scowcroft writes that he was appalled by the first National Security Council meeting following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. "The tone implied that the crisis was halfway around the world and doing anything serious about it would just be too difficult," he says.

Nevertheless, it is easy to exaggerate the foreign policy successes of the Bush years.

The Bush administration did not bring about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Bush's new book makes clear that he and Scowcroft were taken by surprise when the Berlin Wall came down (although they artfully managed the German reunification that followed).

Nor did the Bush team anticipate the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Indeed, their earlier policy had been to court Hussein and encourage him to adopt "acceptably moderate behavior." In short, there is a reason that the title of Bush's book, "A World Transformed," is ambiguous about just who did the transforming.

It can even be argued that some of the problems the Clinton administration confronts today were handed over to it by the Bush team. This is famously true of Hussein, and of Milosevic as well. One can imagine that a Bush administration might have dealt more firmly and successfully with North Korea than Clinton has, but we can't really know for sure.

Above all, some of Bush's successes and Clinton's difficulties are the result of larger historical forces. The Bush administration was dealing with Soviet and Russian leaders at just the time when they hoped that a foreign policy alignment with the West would overcome their nation's economic difficulties. The Bush team nursed along these dreams and reaped the benefits. Clinton and his aides have held office during the period when the inevitable Russian disillusionment set in.

All the considerable skills of the Bush administration's foreign policy team couldn't possibly make Russia support American action against Hussein today in the way that it did in 1990 and 1991. Nor could a new Bush administration prevent the inevitable post-Cold War drift of European governments and Japan toward greater independence from U.S. foreign policy.

Speaking of the cooperation between Washington and Moscow that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Bush and Scowcroft write: "That moment marked the threshold of an era of possibility and hope."

History shows, however, that it was more a moment than an era--and nostalgia aside, it is a time that is not likely to return, with or without a second Bush administration.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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