NEW YORK -- New York governors, like New York doormen, take themselves very seriously. Often they have their own foreign policies (Henry Kissinger was Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's foreign policy adviser) and usually are mentioned as likely presidential candidates. Such is the case with Mario Cuomo who, a reelection just behind him, gave President Bush some advice on the Persian Gulf crisis. At the White House, they must already be putting Cuomo's remarks into an attack ad.
Speaking in Fresno, Calif., Cuomo said that Bush should "try to negotiate" his way out of the Persian Gulf crisis -- not necessarily a bad idea. What was bad, though, is what followed -- the promise of a little something for Iraq: "You could negotiate something that gets them out of Kuwait for the most part, leaves them maybe a little bit on the water, a little bit of oil. ... " How about while you're at it, Mario, a little bit of Staten Island, too.
Cuomo often gets an adoring press. The governor is celebrated as something of a renaissance prince, a Borgia from Gotham who combines political power and searching intellect. What this means, translated into pedestrian terms, is that Cuomo reads an occasional book and has a position on abortion so convoluted (as a Catholic, he opposes it; as governor, he's neutral) it seems downright philosophical. It isn't. It's merely contradictory.
Now we have Cuomo on foreign policy, and it too is something of an intellectual mess. That "little bit on the water" he refers to may well be two strategic Kuwaiti islands at the entry to the Persian Gulf that Iraq has long coveted. Maybe Iraq will wind up with them -- but not as openers and not as rewards for aggression. There's nothing wrong with negotiation, especially if it enables Saddam to save face. There's plenty wrong, though, if it's another word for appeasement.
Partisan politics may not stop at the water's edge, as the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg once hoped -- and maybe it shouldn't. President Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf crisis, initially so firm and steady, has gotten a bit erratic of late. A democracy likes to -- and has to -- thrash these things out. There's is nothing wrong with a good argument. In fact, like the prospect of one's hanging, it tends to concentrate the mind.
But Cuomo's suggestions were frivolous. They were what Vandenberg feared -- not a political discourse, but a form of carping. They were the remarks made by someone who cannot really think that they will be taken seriously or even given wide currency. After all, what is Saddam Hussein to think if he's told that a leader of the Democratic Party, a possible presidential candidate, has already ceded him the islands he desperately wants. Cuomo was not being thoughtful.
Unfortunately, we have seen examples of this sort of thing before. In June, Cuomo addressed the United Jewish Appeal here and told it precisely what it wanted to hear. But while, in the tradition of New York politics, the speech might have been soothing to pro-Israel activists, it was also factually incorrect and preposterously argued. Among other things, Cuomo said the Soviets were still playing "the same deadly game" and that President Bush, in cahoots with Moscow, had agreed to limit Jewish immigration to Israel. Both pronouncements were wrong.
There is much to admire in Mario Cuomo, qualities that are rare in American politics. He is, for one thing, a man of principle: an opponent of the death penalty, even though that position is totally without political benefit. He is also a man of great physicality, a stolid and athletic presence -- no small virtue for a liberal since, for some reason, concern for the underprivileged is considered evidence of a lack of testosterone. No one would suggest that about Cuomo -- especially not to his face.
But not even the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger can save Cuomo if, reflexively, he's going to adopt what the electorate sees as the wishy-washy foreign policy positions it associates with liberalism. With our Army in position and, more than that, in the right, Cuomo is not only willing to negotiate with Saddam Hussein, but say what the dictator's booty will be. If the GOP had written the speech, it could not have done better.
As it is, though, no one could argue with what Cuomo said a bit later. Asked by a reporter to explain his remarks, he became more tentative: "I'm not suggesting this as blueprint for a settlement. That would be presumptuous and stupid."
At last, he got it right.