By the time he was two minutes into a recent foreign policy speech, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis had used the word "strong" seven times. (As in: ". . . we must be tough and strong . . . no substitute for a strong and coherent foreign policy . . . a vision of an America that is proud and strong. . . .") "Tough" had by then made four appearances. In the old New Yorker cartoon, the little boy comes home and says, "Mommy, can you surmise what new word I learned in school today?" The Democrats have learned a new word.
They need the word "strong" because the policies they propose suggest the opposite. With one exception, the Democratic presidential candidates have been falling over each other trying to convince the Iowa caucuses of their love of peace, their distrust of weapons and their good will toward men. Until Al Gore broke the spell by challenging his colleagues to reconcile their tough talk with their marshmallow foreign policies, the Democratic debate was a contest to determine who would be quicker to kill the contras, dismantle weapons systems and renounce current American commitments abroad (the Persian Gulf and Korea have come to mind).
The peacemaking one-upmanship was reminiscent of a similar contest last time around when Walter Mondale and Gary Hart fought over who had been first to endorse the nuclear freeze, probably the worst national defense idea of the decade. (Had it been taken seriously, a freeze would have, among other things, made impossible the pending U.S.-Soviet Euromissile treaty, on which the Democratic candidates today cannot heap enough praise.)
As for Gore, his deviations from Democratic orthodoxy are, to be sure, mild. He is no Richard Perle. Gore kneels before his party's foreign policy totems, such as opposition to the contras and SDI. But he is no patsy either. He opposes the latest Democratic fad, by far the dumbest arms control idea since the freeze: a ban on flight-testing nuclear missiles. (That way, you see, we won't know if they work, so we won't use them -- presto! no nuclear war. Also no deterrence, but you can't have everything.)
Gore, and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, are for giving the contras a bit of canteen money so they won't starve while they're being disarmed in anticipation of the Sandinistas' embrace of democracy. Gore's opponents will not countenance such indulgence of "gangsters." (The thoughtful term is Bruce Babbitt's.)
Gore has also been the only Democratic candidate who supported the reflagging of Kuwaiti vessels and who has not retreated from that position every time an Islamic outboard has taken a potshot at the U.S. Navy. And he has challenged his opponents to declare where, if they're not going to stand by our vital interests in the Persian Gulf, they will stand by any American vital interest.
For such audacity, Gore stands accused of using the rhetoric of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Ronald Reagan. The charge is not just silly, it is telling. It does not inspire confidence in new-found Democratic toughness that at the first and mildest challenge, Simon and Dukakis and Gephardt and company should feign injury, cry foul and appeal to audience and moderator for sympathy and respite.
Gore's message is that one of the reasons Democrats so rarely inhabit the White House these days is that they are perceived, correctly, as being dreamy on defense. The rest of the pack protests the message while fielding a two-part counterstrategy. Part one, relentless resort to the words "tough" and "strong," is quite harmless. Part two, taking traditional American "toughness" toward Soviet expansionism and redirecting it against allies and trading partners, is not. To listen to the Democrats, they cannot quite decide which threat is greater: the Soviet Union and its 10-warheaded SS-18s or Japan and its four-headed VCRs.
"The next president must be as tough in negotiating the terms of trade as this president has been in negotiating with the Russians," warns Gephardt, whose latest mailing announces a campaign event on Dec. 1 that he is calling, with either breathtaking historical ignorance or breathtaking cynicism, "AMERICA FIRST: DECEMBER FIRST." Dukakis is for getting tough with . . . Korea. He threatened to move our troops out if they don't meet Dukakian standards on human rights.
And the whole pack joins in opprobrium for Europe for not shouldering enough of the West's defense burden. This idea, for a change, has some merit. But the timing does not. Now is not exactly the moment to indulge in threats to pull American forces out of Europe unless Europe contributes another 1 or 2 percent of GNP for defense. The United States has just agreed in principle to dismantle the nuclear missiles that it said would guarantee Europe's security against Soviet attack. Our European allies are understandably nervous. To compound that nervousness by threatening now to reduce nonnuclear forces too would convince our remaining European friends that there is no future, and certainly no profit, in the American connection. It is an invitation to neutralism.
A party pushing ideas of this sort has no business running American foreign policy. Mercifully, a party pushing ideas of this sort has little prospect of getting the chance.