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Beating around Bush on foreign policy

THE REPUBLICAN nomination is Texas Gov. George W. Bush's to lose. Those stakes are high, but some are still higher: Take, for example, the place of the United States in the world. Can George W. hold on to both?

Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Affairs Committee and 34-year Congress veteran, says that a president needs "a very keen sense of what the American national interest is. The principle thing is not so much what they know, but their judgment" ("Rivals rip Bush on foreign policy IQ," www.msnbc.com, Nov. 5).

A brief look at recent American history can prove Hamilton is correct in his assertion. President Harry Truman had limited experience in foreign affairs -- as a Senator he headed the "war investigating committee," a group that looked into waste and corruption during WWII. His predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn't bother to mention the atomic bomb or rising difficulties with Soviet Russia before he died. Truman said he felt like "the moon, the stars, and the planets had all fallen on me," when he discovered what he really faced in his first days in office ("Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President," www.ask.com).

In sharp contrast, President George Bush was ambassador to the United Nations, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency before his time in the Oval Office. Perhaps such credentials were necessary at a time when the Soviet Union crumpled, the Berlin Wall fell, and relations with China were questionable at best, but even with all his experience, Bush allowed his ambassadors to send mixed signals to Iraq that could have precipitated the Gulf War.

Taking all this into account, Hamilton's remark bodes both well and badly for the GOP frontrunner. Bush should not necessarily be condemned for his failure of a foreign leaders quiz earlier this month; WHDH-TV's Andy Hiller shouldn't have expected the governor of Texas to know details of foreign policy, even if he is running for president.

On the other hand, it also means that not only will Bush need a crash course in names of foreign leaders, he will also need to check his judgment. The major flub in the interview was not Bush's inability to name the leaders of several world hot spots, but his analysis of the current situation in Pakistan.

Bush declared that the recent military coup would "bring stability to the country." He may be right -- Pakistan may be stable for a little while, but it's not the kind of stability the United States would like to see. Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf could be a peacemaker of sorts because he knows Pakistan's military weakness relative to India and is less susceptible to the insistence of public opinion, but tense peace does not make lasting stability. A coup by its very definition means the situation was so unstable that some radical party deemed intervention essential.

This is one area where any president or presidential contender should at least know America's national interest. Not only is India a long-time rival of China and infamous for conflicts with Pakistan, but the recent revelation that the subcontinent now has nuclear capabilities makes good relations a necessity, not an option. Good relations start with a rational dialogue, and in a dialogue, it helps to know the other person's name.

American foreign policy cannot be as simple as it was during the Cold War. In our constant battle for allies against Communism, all an American president needed to know was the name of the USSR's leader and the general location of the next possible small-state domino. Now that the dominoes seem to be falling towards democracy, the United States must redefine its role.

Some nations welcome investment, loans, whatever we can give. Others see us as greedy capitalists seeking to exploit other cultures for profit. To "spin" action properly, our president must walk a thin line between proper intervention and perceived imperialism -- a task not even easily accomplished by our current president, the king of word manipulation.

The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the leader of the only world superpower, and has the ability to conduct a 60-day war with no one's permission -- he should know what he's getting himself into. The end of the Cold War made that job harder, not easier. Now no one really knows where the next big trouble spot will be -- our next president will face potentially critical situations in India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Israel and most of Africa. The strength of the United States' paternalistic role under the Monroe doctrine will be tested by civil strife in Latin America, and the future of the United Nations and NATO will hinge on the events of early next century.

In a speech he made in September, Bush did lay out something resembling a military policy. He said that under his leadership, "We will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties. That is not our strength or our calling." Very well, Governor, but before you let Kosovar anger run free or religious wars resume, please do some homework. Many people in the world have a lot more to lose than a campaign.

(Emily Harding's column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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