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Published: Thursday, 8/3/2000

Foreign policy an election nonstarter

BY JAMES O'TOOLE
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PHILADELPHIA - Culminating in Dick Cheney's appearance last night, this convention has featured a parade of national security heavyweights arrayed behind the candidacy of George W. Bush.

One of the chief arguments for Mr. Cheney's selection was the foreign policy heft he brings to the GOP ticket.

Yet all that star power belies the fact that this election, like most American presidential contests, is unlikely to turn on the issues that shaped the reputations of such GOP figures and convention speakers as Mr. Cheney; former generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf; and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's chief foreign policy adviser.

In part this reflects a normal pattern of U.S. elections. "Tip O'Neill had it right" 'All politics are local.' Folks don't give a thought to foreign policy until the bombs are flying," said Donald Goldstein, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

But the muted debate reflects a broad post-Cold War convergence between the parties on the overall direction of America's role in the world. There are real arguments and cross-criticisms between Governor Bush and Vice President Gore on a number of specific issues and questions of tactics. But differences on the really fundamental questions are harder to find. Foreign affairs debates do go on between the two major parties but within a narrower band on the ideological spectrum.

"These guys are both internationalists, both free traders; in that sense there are important similarities," said Robert Lieber, professor of government and foreign affairs at Georgetown University.

Politically, that's not an accident. Polls from 1943 to the present consistently show that a substantial majority of voters remain internationalists.

There are some differences between the candidates. "The Democratic case against Bush in foreign policy rests less on specific issues than on his supposed lack of experience in the area."

Similarly, the Republican foreign policy case against the Clinton administration, and, by extension, Vice President Gore, is not based so much on ideology as on tactics and competence.

Governor Bush has promised to be more skeptical and cautious about commitments of U.S. troops to peacekeeping missions and other foreign commitments. But he acknowledges the need for selective U.S. interventions abroad.

The candidates also differ on the comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty that the Senate rejected last year - Vice President Gore supports it; Governor Bush opposes it. Governor Bush advocates a tougher line in dealing with China. But he still supports the one-China policy that has been a constant in U.S. policy.

Governor Bush has been a more committed advocate of a national missile defense system. Vice President Gore supports testing of a missile defense system but has made no definitive statement on when or how such a system should be deployed.

"A lot of these issues divide on whether you're the outsider or the one in office," said Paul Y. Hammond, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school of Public and International Affairs. "From the election perspective, Gore's problem is that he's the insider."

But that's a political problem only if the voters are paying attention.



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