WASHINGTON — The conventional wisdom about the 2000 presidential contest was that foreign policy wouldn't matter. But as with most predictions about this race--Vice President Al Gore was supposed to be a lock to win the Democratic nomination, while the Republican primary was going to be fiercely contested--it's turned out to be wrong. Already, front-runner George W. Bush's stream of gaffes on world leaders and geography has made it clear that his most vulnerable spot is foreign affairs. As a result, his speech a week ago at the Reagan presidential library on U.S. foreign policy became a media event, a kind of foreign-policy superbowl in which Bush was supposed to demonstrate whether he really has what it takes to run the world's only remaining superpower.
All the hoopla, though, has obscured the fact that Bush's speech was notable not for what it revealed about Bush himself, but for what it said about the state of the GOP. Far from being united around a coherent ideology, Republicans are split as never before on foreign affairs, while Democrats, like Republicans of old, have a fairly coherent internationalist bent. Indeed, while the Bush campaign has tried to paper over those differences, the strains are already discernible both in the composition of Bush's foreign-policy team and in the party itself.
Three camps exist in the GOP. The first consists of the outright isolationists in Congress, such as Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. In a recent talk at the Heritage Foundation, she declared that President Bill Clinton "has been too free with our military obligations abroad." In Hutchison's view, a Clinton doctrine of gunboat diplomacy has emerged: "We are injecting American troops into political situations that pose no threat to us or our allies. . . . The United States could become involved in civil wars all around the globe, trying to create a utopian American multiparty democracy--at the point of a gun." Hutchison and other Republicans called for a retreat from the world during the Kosovo conflict, which they declared would be a disaster for the U.S. Sounding like members of the New Left during the Vietnam War, they said, in the words of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), "It was time to give peace a chance."
Then there are those who call for a return to the grand vision of Ronald Reagan. This camp is represented by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has called for a "rollback of rogue regimes," and magazines like the Weekly Standard, which seeks to create a new and interventionist foreign policy. For those nostalgic for the days of the Gipper, America needs a new national purpose abroad: toppling the Chinese dictatorship.
Finally, there is a third group that falls somewhere in between: balance-of-power advocates. These are the self-declared realists who look back, not to Reagan, but to George Bush's presidency, when the U.S. did not intervene in Yugoslavia and did not go to Baghdad during the Gulf War, but sought to maintain a balance of power in the Middle East between Iraq and Iran. To realists, such as former Bush National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, nothing could be more harebrained than attempting to launch a new cold war against China or intervene on behalf of human rights around the globe. Such efforts, realists believe, will overextend U.S. power and ultimately be self-defeating.
Where does George W. fall in these internal Republican debates? He has split the difference between these last two camps. He's not about to let himself be tagged an isolationist, a word that's become as big a boo-word in U.S. politics as being called a liberal. So he's invited advocates from both camps to join his campaign. The result has been somewhat schizophrenic.
On the one side are his realist advisors, such as former Stanford provost Condoleezza Rice, who served in the National Security Council in the first Bush administration. A brilliant thinker, Rice has taken the lead in organizing George W.'s foreign-policy team. One of her key associates is Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution, who has written cogently about the tradeoffs of intervention abroad. It was partly due to Rice's and Haass' influence that Bush's first speech on foreign policy at the Citadel military academy on Sept. 23 attacked the Clinton administration for "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions." Bush declared, "I will work hard to find political solutions that allow an orderly and timely withdrawal from places like Kosovo and Bosnia. We will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties."