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Gore Turns Global Wins Into Loses

October 29, 2000|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition."

NEW YORK — As the closest presidential election since 1960 comes down to the wire, something strange is happening. Foreign policy, dismissed by most pundits as a distraction in the politics of an America at peace, is turning out to be a decisive factor. If Al Gore loses Nov. 7, he can blame his defeat, in large part, on his campaign's failure to make his foreign-policy experience and programs a political plus. Foreign-policy issues have consistently broken Gov. George W. Bush's way, dividing the Democratic base, swinging independents toward the GOP and energizing Bush's hard-core support.

Start with trade. While Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign is powered by many factors, widespread public fears about globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization are key elements galvanizing his campaign. Currently standing at about 5% in the polls, Nader has the ability to throw a handful of key states into the Republican column. Result: If Gore goes down, he can partly thank NAFTA and the WTO.

Meanwhile, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, widely seen a year ago as the kind of danger to the GOP that Nader is to Democrats today, has fizzled. One big reason is Buchanan's foreign-policy blooper calling U.S. participation in World War II a mistake. That essentially ended Buchanan's appeal to ordinary patriotic conservatives and ended any chance that the Reform Party would cut into Bush's base.

Then came the "stature gap." Gore backers counted on voters deciding that the relatively inexperienced Texas governor was not ready for prime time, especially when it came to the dangerous, explosive issues in foreign policy that only the president can decide. During one debate, when Bush called on Russian intervention to help mediate the transition from Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Gore mocked his inexperience and naivete. Then came the news that the Russians, with Clinton administration support, were playing an active and positive role in the transition.

Bye-bye, stature gap.

The Bush camp went on the offensive last week as top Bush aide Condoleezza Rice said that a President Bush would pull U.S. troops out of Kosovo and tell the Europeans to carry this one on their own. The Gore campaign responded with accusations that this could destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and fundamentally weaken the U.S. position in Europe.

No sale: Polls show the attacks didn't work.

That is bad news for the vice president today, and for a Gore administration, if we get one. An ambitious commitment to "humanitarian interventions" around the world and a belief that U.S. security interests are closely tied to U.S. willingness and ability to serve as the global cop on the beat are close to the core of Gore's world view. Apparently, Bush's pledge to define national security in more traditional terms and to use U.S. forces more sparingly is going down well with most voters, and probably bolsters Bush's high standing in the polls when it comes to characteristics like "leadership."

Paradoxically, thanks to the perception that Bush would be less willing than Gore to plunge the nation into humanitarian interventions, many Americans feel that the untried governor is a safer, more reassuring choice than the globe-trotting, knowledgeable and experienced vice president.

Finally, with the Middle East peace process at least temporarily going down in flames, U.S. embassies closing down as body bags come home and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries riding high as the price of oil rises, public confidence in the Clinton-Gore administration's foreign policy is losing steam.

There could still be another shoe to drop. High energy prices are pressuring the tottering euro and causing huge falls in many Asian stock markets and currencies. New headlines about another global financial crisis, though unlikely, can't quite be ruled out before Nov. 7--and that would be the kind of October or November surprise that an incumbent vice president doesn't need.

At the same time, one of the most startling developments in the campaign has been the apparent inability of the Gore camp to take advantage of its wins. Take the progress on the Korean peninsula. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's successful trip to Pyongyang could be the most important thing that's happened anywhere in the world this year. It also has massive implications for U.S. politics.

Peace on the Korean peninsula would cut the legs out from under key Republican assumptions about national defense. Of all the rogue states, or, as Albright now calls them, "states of concern," North Korea is the one closest to the capacity against which a national missile defense system would be designed. Ending the threat through negotiation could be cheaper, safer, more reliable and would involve much less diplomatic upheaval than building such a system.

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