Today in Simi Valley, Calif., at the Ronald Reagan Library, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is scheduled to give his first major address on foreign policy. The Vulcans will be watching.
Inspired by the Roman god of fire and metalworking, "Vulcans" is the campaign's nickname for Bush's foreign policy team, whose eight core members include leading lights of his father's presidency and the Reagan administration, led by former National Security Council aide Condoleezza Rice and former undersecretary of defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.
In daily e-mail messages, weekly conference calls and occasional meetings at the governor's mansion, the Vulcans have hammered out a platform that rejects both isolationism and drifting "from crisis to crisis" in places without clear U.S. interests, instead emphasizing relations with major allies and "great powers" such as Russia, China and, potentially, India.
That emphasis is an implicit criticism of President Clinton. In the view of Bush and his advisers, Clinton has entangled U.S. military forces in secondary conflicts while neglecting what they consider the real threats to American security, such as "rogue states," Chinese nationalism and the potential for a resurgent Russia.
All presidential candidates seek expert help. But the Vulcans may prove especially important for the Republican front-runner, a former oilman and sports team owner who by his own admission plans to rely heavily on advisers to compensate for his lack of experience in foreign affairs.
Not surprisingly, interviews with all eight foreign policy advisers--most of whom asked not to be quoted by name--paint a more nuanced picture of the Texas governor than the caricature drawn by his critics. Notwithstanding his well-publicized gaffes--confusing Slovakia with Slovenia, referring to Greeks as "Grecians" and failing a pop quiz on the names of four foreign leaders--they described their candidate as a quick study armed with a strong set of core beliefs.
Though honest about gaps in his knowledge, advisers said, Bush has not been timid about expressing his views, urging them to be bolder in staking out positions on China, NATO's intervention in Kosovo and the need for investing in the military, for example.
"He seems unafraid of saying, 'Well, you guys are the experts, and this is what I just heard you say, but this is the way it sounds to me,' " one adviser said. "That's what leadership is all about."
In an interview in Iowa earlier this week, Bush said the advisers helped him mainly with "the specifics" of today's speech. "Some of the specifics in the policy complement the philosophy. But the philosophy is in my heart," he said.
Many of the Vulcans got their first exposure to the candidate's style in February, when Bush had them down to Austin for a session on defense policy. Dov S. Zakheim, a Reagan-era Pentagon official and now an executive with an Arlington defense firm, arrived at the governor's mansion armed with detailed charts on Pentagon budgets and procurement issues.
Only a few minutes into the presentation, however, Bush interrupted Zakheim to ask, in effect: "What do we need an army for?" The question caused momentary surprise. But the ensuing discussion on the role of the military in the post-Cold War world was far more useful than flipping through charts, participants said.
The Vulcans are understandably sensitive to suggestions that Bush is reading from a script. Asked to name a specific case in which Bush had overruled his advisers, one of them said: "You mean, does he have a brain?"
Bush advisers noted that as governor of a large state bordering Mexico, the governor is fluent in Spanish and well versed in regional issues--such as trade, immigration and narcotics trafficking--that affect what he calls "the neighborhood."
Whatever his intrinsic strengths, Bush has benefited from his lineage in rounding up foreign policy talent. Last summer, according to campaign officials, Bush's father set up a meeting at his summer residence in Kennebunkport, Maine, between his son and "Condi" Rice, a Russia specialist who held a senior foreign policy position in the Bush White House and earlier this year stepped down as provost of Stanford University.
After conferring with the younger Bush over several days--including once while she was exercising on a treadmill--Rice agreed to lead his foreign policy team. "Vulcans" is a reference not just to the forging of policy, but also to her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., where a statue of the Roman god symbolizes the city's heritage of steelmaking.
Rice was soon joined by another Bush administration luminary, Wolfowitz, who was recruited to the team by Richard B. Cheney, President Bush's defense secretary, and by former secretary of state George P. Shultz, who served in the Reagan administration.
Other advisers "stuck a toe in the water because they were curious," a Bush campaign official said. "They saw in the governor someone whose philosophy matched theirs and was a successful governor and a potentially successful president."
By early this year, Rice and Wolfowitz had cemented the team, whose first meeting was the February session on defense policy. Subsequent gatherings have occurred over brunch at Shultz's house in Palo Alto, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington and at the governor's mansion. For the most part, however, the Vulcans have conducted their business in e-mail messages and Monday morning conference calls.
If schedules permit, Rice and Wolfowitz also hold a conference call with the governor and Joshua Bolten, his senior policy adviser, on Sunday evenings.
Though hardly monolithic in their views, Bush's foreign policy advisers tend toward the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, favoring free trade and an active overseas role that pays special attention to the care and feeding of allies. That the governor relies heavily on the advisers is not in doubt.
During the recent Senate debate over whether the United States should join the international treaty banning nuclear tests, for example, Bush adviser and former assistant defense secretary Stephen J. Hadley led the drafting of a memo that laid out arguments on both sides of the debate and concluded with a recommendation. The governor followed the advice, siding with Senate Republicans who voted to reject the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but vowing that as president he would continue the testing moratorium begun by his father in 1992.
A prominent Democratic foreign policy specialist conceded that the team has strong credentials--"This is not the gang that couldn't shoot straight"--but questioned whether its members' Cold War experience is suited to an era defined by "shades of gray." He noted, for example, that Bush's Sept. 23 speech on defense policy accused the Clinton administration of "sending our military on vague, aimless and endless deployments"--but neglected to say which ones he would have scrapped.
As the Bush campaign has begun dropping hints about the content of today's speech, advisers to Vice President Gore, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, have already weighed in with preemptive criticism. "There's a lot here which is an effort to cobble together stuff and mint it as significantly different, but it's not," a senior Gore adviser said yesterday. "This speech is a self-administered test with a low threshold for passing, and the threshold is you read the speech that someone else wrote for you and you make it look convincing."
Except to say that Bush would be more reluctant than Clinton to commit U.S. forces abroad, his advisers acknowledge that neither they nor their candidate have formulated a clear standard for deciding when to do so. Discussions on the genocide in Rwanda, for example, yielded no definitive answer on whether the United States should have intervened to stop the bloodletting.
"These are not simple matters," one adviser said. "You don't come up with a full-blown doctrine overnight."
Members of the group were hard pressed to cite examples of Bush explicitly rejecting their advice. On the other hand, they said, he is not shy about telling them what he thinks. "I don't think it's so much rejecting the consensus of the group as it is pushing the group to be a little bolder," one adviser said.
During one meeting in Austin, for example, Bush asked for the Vulcans' views on the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which precludes the United States from building a nationwide shield against ballistic missiles. "All of us to a greater or lesser extent are uncomfortable with the treaty," said one. "But he said, and this was clearly on his own, 'My concern isn't the treaty. My concern is [building a] missile defense, and I don't want to let anything stand in the way of it.' "
Bush's ability to see through the clutter, advisers said, also was apparent during discussions on the Clinton administration's China policy. Advisers were especially critical of the president's performance during his 10-day visit to China last year, when Clinton referred to China as a "strategic partner" and neglected to pay courtesy calls on Japan or South Korea.
"We thought it was a gratuitous slap in the face" at Washington's closest Asian allies, said one person present during the discussion. Advisers urged the candidate to adopt a more muscular stand toward Beijing, acknowledging China as a potential threat while emphasizing the need to stay engaged on trade and other issues.
It was at that point, advisers said, that Bush came up with the phrase "strategic competitor" to describe the U.S. relationship with China. The phrase has since been adopted by his campaign.
While the group tries to reach consensus on major issues, Bush sometimes has to choose between competing arguments. Last spring, for example, he was confronted with a difference of views over whether the United States should take military action to protect the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo. Zakheim was against it. Wolfowitz was for it. In the end, swayed by arguments that the crisis threatened European stability, Bush reluctantly backed Clinton's decision to intervene.
But Bush is uncomfortable with such entanglements. A draft of today's speech, for example, warns against isolationism but also rejects the "temptation" to "drift, to move from crisis to crisis like a cork."
Bush's Foreign Policy Team
International consultant; assistant secretary of defense, Reagan administration
Harvard University professor; National Security Council aide, Bush administration
STEPHEN J. HADLEY
International lawyer; assistant secretary of defense, Bush administration
Fellow, American Enterprise Institute; assistant secretary of defense, Reagan administration
Former provost, Stanford University; National Security Council aide, Bush administration
Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; undersecretary of defense, Bush administration
Defense consultant; deputy under secretary of defense, Reagan administration
Research scholar, Harvard; deputy chief of staff, Bush White House
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush answers questions yesterday after reading to an assembly of students at Windsor Elementary School in Des Moines.