President Clinton has been heard to wish aloud for a bumper sticker slogan that could quickly rally public support for his foreign policy agenda. He never got it. But George W. Bush's campaign team has the possibility to succeed where Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger failed.
Bush and his advisers have fashioned an isometric campaign message he will unveil tomorrow. It spotlights a few big interconnected ideas in foreign policy that can be shrunk down to: "Big good, little bad." I oversimplify of course, but we are dealing with campaign politics here, not astrophysics.
It is no accident that Bush has chosen to give his first major speech on international affairs at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The Texas governor intends to stress that, like Reagan, he would concentrate on one or two big things and leave details to others.
But there may be a hidden danger for the candidate in this approach. The changing world Bush would lead moves at a speed Reagan never had to contend with. It is not so easily compartmentalized or put on hold.
Tomorrow's speech complements the national security ideas Bush outlined in a Sept. 23 address. Bush is assailing the Clinton-Gore administration and the Democratic Party as a whole for three big shortcomings in foreign policy:
(1) The Clintonites did not spend enough on the military (even though U.S. defense spending consumes more taxpayer dollars than those of all other major industrial powers combined.) A GWB White House will spend much more on a bigger national missile defense than Clinton has in mind, and on readiness.
(2) Clinton committed the U.S. military and our national prestige to a series of little conflicts that had little to do with U.S. interests. A list of the littles would include Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia and East Timor, though Bush will not cite names tomorrow.
(3) Clinton neglected--or actively antagonized--America's European allies and Japan by putting priority on chimerical alliances with China and with "reformers" in Russia who could not deliver at home. Bush will concentrate on getting the traditional alliances right early on, and will also construct new relationships with China, Russia and India, the three bigs of the future.
As core ideas for campaigning and governing, each contains merit. I particularly agree with No. 3. Clinton's decision not to go to Europe in his first year in office and his trampling on Japan's role in Asia in his rush to China are now recognized as serious errors even by some officials deeply involved in those policies.
But to establish credibility Bush will need to avoid rewriting history and strategy in his campaign criticisms--especially when it comes to the Balkans. His support for NATO's air war in Kosovo makes this easier for Bush.
Clinton crafted his "lift and strike" Bosnia policy, which caused bitter conflict with Britain and France, in response to Republican demands for action in the Balkans. Those demands came principally from the last GOP presidential candidate, Bob Dole.
Dole's nonstop pressure and President George Bush's 1992 "Christmas warning" to Belgrade not to attack Kosovo make U.S. involvement in the Balkans a splendidly bipartisan product. Clinton and aides are open to criticism over tactics but not over an involvement GOP leaders helped stimulate.
Bush also should sketch his thinking on alliance issues that will not wait for him to take office. There is a good benchmark for judging his discussion tomorrow of ways to improve relations with Europe. It is whether he addresses the startling new French-British agreement to establish within the next year a 40,000-member European-commanded force--more or less within NATO--to take on more responsibility and authority for Europe's defense.
This kind of force might keep American troops out of Bosnia-type situations. But it worries the Pentagon. It could overlap, confuse or tamper with U.S. power in NATO. Where does Bush think the proper balance of European authority within NATO lies?
His discussion of that--or his failure to address it--is certainly a more reliable guide to his presidential-ness than was Bush's recent flubbing of a Boston television reporter's pop quiz on the names of four foreign leaders.
That incident took on outsized significance only in the context of the candidate's previous vagueness in his set-piece speeches and in infrequent on-the-record interviews about foreign policy, even though he welcomed other journalistic exchanges reminiscent of Bill Clinton's discussions of the kind of shorts he wears.
Foreign policy in the global era is not an esoteric domain that Boston television reporters will avoid, as Bush's press aides seem to have presumed. Foreign affairs cannot be shunted off onto a side railing until the campaign is ready. To see the world so compartmentalized and subject to manipulation is to risk repeating many of the mistakes Bush saddles on Clinton and Gore.