George W. Bush plays defense on foreign and defense policy in his front-running bid for the GOP presidential nomination. But the Texas governor has lost no confidence in his ability to "bring certainty into an uncertain world" if he is elected next year.
He lists dealing with Russia on nuclear safety and erecting a U.S. missile defense as urgent and related items on a global agenda Bush concedes he is still shaping, even as he fills the governor's chair, fights an unexpectedly spirited primary campaign by John McCain and refines plans to take the White House next autumn.
A 70-minute interview at his campaign headquarters here suggests Bush would conduct the nation's leadership of world affairs with an intensely personal style that emphasizes coalition-building and trust among leaders. He would divide the world into friends and foes more clearly than has the Clinton-Gore team, rewarding the former and resisting the latter.
Among the main points Bush made:
NATO troops--preferably provided solely by European nations--will be needed in Kosovo as long as Slobodan Milosevic is in power in Belgrade. North Korea must not be allowed to get away with threat-based, "bait and switch" diplomacy. China can expect no more of the exaggerated rhetoric and political concessions President Clinton lavished on Beijing--although Bush will fight for normal trading relations with China.
Despite a pair of well-crafted speeches on national defense and foreign policy, Bush has had to defend his failure to come up with foreign leaders' names in a television pop quiz and his vagueness on world affairs in GOP primary debates. In a more conversational setting last Friday, Bush seemed eager to put to rest doubts about his conceptual abilities.
His remarks on missile defense and on gays in the military may have the most immediate impact, as these issues become embroiled in the presidential campaign.
I asked Bush about the decision President Clinton has scheduled for next June on whether the United States will build and deploy, in 2005, a new system of land-based rocket interceptors and long-range radar to protect the 50 states from ballistic missile attacks from rogue states such as North Korea or Iraq.
While much smaller than Ronald Reagan's space-based SDI proposals, this national missile defense would break the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 and is strongly opposed by Russia--which holds presidential elections next June. U.S. allies in Europe and others are urging a delay in Clinton's decision, but Republicans may attack any delay.
Would Bush criticize Clinton for leaving the deployment decision to the next administration?
"No. I might even praise him," Bush said. But he left no doubt about what his decision would be. Bush called on Clinton to begin now "to increase the latitude of thought and examination and research on the confines of the current ABM treaty. The president needs to start the clock with the Russians now and modify the ABM treaty so that both countries can do the development necessary to deploy effective systems."
Bush acknowledged that overcoming Russian opposition to ABM changes would be difficult, with the war in Chechnya straining U.S.-Russian relations. What would he do as president to create conditions to cause Moscow to change its view?
"A president has capital by virtue of being elected to that office. I intend to spend that capital to bring certainty to an uncertain world. . . . I'm not sure where the leverage points are going to be then. But my job would be to convince them it is in their interest and in our interest to prevent the rogue launch."
In contrast to Reagan, whose foreign policy ideas Bush frequently and favorably cites, the governor is comfortable with relying on nuclear weapons as part of national defense. He sees no chance of abolishing them. "The ability for people to build a nuclear weapon is a lot easier than ever before. It is a question of what level you need to keep the peace. I am open-minded about that."
He ruled out unilateral nuclear cuts like those his father made at the end of the Cold War to encourage the Russians to cut as well. Russia has to ratify the START II treaty before there will be any reduction of the U.S. arsenal, Bush said.
That view is in line with current policy, as were many other points Bush made. This suggests a strong continuity in foreign policy in a new Bush presidency. He actually defended a Clinton-era policy that the president says he would now like to dump.
"I support the don't ask, don't tell policy" on gays in the military. "I would want my commanders to establish a culture of respect for all individuals in the military" without regard to sexual orientation. Bush would abolish the White House liaison post for gay and lesbian groups established by Clinton.
"In foreign policy today we are dealing with a different set of issues, but not a different set of solutions," Bush said, summarizing his overall approach to a set of complex problems abroad that do not seem in any way to have intimidated the campaign front-runner.