Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

31st December 2000

Bush foreign policy is no isolationism

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NEW YORK— President-elect George W. Bush, who never set foot on European soil during his entire lifetime, remains untested on US foreign policy issues.

As a longtime Governor of Texas, Bush rarely wandered beyond the shores of the United States — certainly not to Europe, Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.

But America’s Spanish-speaking “barely-elect” president, who is described as an anti-thesis of an egghead, did build up a strong relationship with neighbouring Mexico which borders his home state of Texas.

Bush has a thorough grasp of the intricacies of Mexican — and perhaps Latin American — politics.

In a newspaper interview during the height of the presidential election campaign, Bush displayed his lack of expertise in global politics when he was unable to name several contemporary world leaders who were in the news at that time, including the heads of government of India and Pakistan. The only name he knew was Lee Teng hui of Taiwan.

But the politician in him prompted Bush to turn the question around in an attempt to nail the reporter. “Tell me,” said Bush, “Can you name the foreign minister of Mexico”.

The reporter came up with an equally smart response: “But Governor”, he exclaimed, “I am not running for president of the United States.”

Bush, who was once described by the New York Times as a Yale graduate who flaunts his disdain for Ivy League intellectualism, has admitted that unlike outgoing President Bill Clinton or Vice President Al Gore, he does not have a mind crammed with facts and figures.

“America understands that a guy doesn’t know the name of every single foreign leader,” he noted. “I don’t think you can expect any president to know all things about all subjects.”

One of the roles of a leader, he said, was to “surround himself with excellent folks and to be able to listen and to be able to delegate.”

Bush’s shortcomings, however, could be more than offset by two of his appointees last week: Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

An ex-academic from Stanford University, Rice is articulate and extremely knowledgeable on foreign affairs. She is one of the bright young sparks in the new Bush administration which takes office on January 20.

Although the Democrats have been holding onto the White House under President Clinton during the last eight years, it was a Republican majority in Congress that tried to dictate American foreign policy.

The one who has led the right-wing conservative pack in Congress was Jesse Helms, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As a Republican administration takes over the White House, Helms may wield more political muscle reinforcing his policy of isolationism: the notion that “American interests are best served by minimal involvement in foreign affairs and alliances”.

During the election campaign, Bush said that if he was elected president, he would pull out American troops from a peacekeeping operation in Kosovo, which is predominantly European in structure.

Bush’s off-the-cuff remarks set off alarm bells in Western Europe and among NATO allies.

The Republicans have also taken an exceptionally hardline on the United Nations.

Last week Helms came out strongly against a statement by Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the United Nations is “the sole source of the legitimacy on the use of force.”

The American people, Helms said, will never accept that notion. “True, the US Senate ratified the UN Charter 50 years ago. Yet in so doing, America did not cede one syllable of its sovereignty to the United Nations,” he asserted.

When the US supports nations “struggling to break the chains of tyranny,” Helms argued, it doesn’t need the approval of an international body, “a quarter of whose members are totalitarian dictatorships”.

The Republican Congress has also opposed most of the recent international conventions, including the convention to establish an International Criminal Court.

Over the next four years, the world will be closely watching the Bush administration — and how it conforms or departs from the basic elements of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy.

Will the US, the world’s only superpower, be more pragmatic or will it come under the influence of hardcore right-wing Republicans?

As Professor Michael Mandelbaum of John Hopkins University puts it: “If you are the 800-pound gorilla, you’re concentrating on your bananas and everyone else is concentrating on you.”

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