Thursday, September 30, 2004

Viewer beware: Debate rhetoric just that


Thursday, September 30, 2004 · Last updated 3:43 a.m. PT

Viewer beware: Debate rhetoric just that


WASHINGTON -- Thursday's presidential debate on foreign policy should come with a disclaimer: What you hear from the candidates is not necessarily what you would get in the next four years.

Consider these words from Gov. George W. Bush when he debated foreign affairs with Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 11, 2000:

"Strong relations in Europe is in our nation's interest."

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're humble but strong, they'll welcome us."

"We're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That's what it's meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops."

Critics say none of those remarks characterizes Bush's presidency, pointing out that relations with some European nations - particularly France and Germany - became frayed over the Iraq war. They argue that "humble" hardly describes Bush's foreign policy, often citing a standard campaign declaration by Vice President Dick Cheney that "we will never seek a permission slip to defend the United States of America."

Iraq has evolved from the quick ouster of a dictator into the largest of all nation-building projects since World War II, with the U.S. military running the country for more than a year and the National Guard and Reserves stretched to keep enough troops in Iraq.

That Bush's presidency would differ from his campaign rhetoric is not surprising.

Just moving into the Oval Office can change a politician's world view. Unforeseen events can lead to a drastic reshuffling of national security priorities - and few presidents have had to deal with an event of the magnitude of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Moreover the foreign policy agenda has changed. The Balkans and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were big issues in the 2000 debate; terrorism was not even mentioned.

It is hard to imagine that four years from now, the big issues in Thursday's debate - Iraq and terrorism - will have disappeared. But other issues could boil over in that time, such as Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, turmoil in Haiti or the uncertain future of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

None of this means that candidates' comments Thursday are irrelevant. Some of Bush's policies clearly reflected his positions in the debate. He said he would pursue anti-ballistic missile systems - and he did. He said foreign aid should encourage free-markets and political reforms. That became the basis of his Millennium Challenge Account program.

Most significantly, Bush made clear he would get tough on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"We don't know whether he's developing weapons of mass destruction. He better not be or there's going to be a consequence should I be the president," he said during that 2000 debate.

But Bush also said, "It's going to be important to rebuild that coalition to keep the pressure on him." Democrats say Bush did not do enough to rebuild the broad multinational coalition that provided troops and money that forced Saddam's military out of Kuwait in the earlier Persian Gulf War.

Instead, Bush organized the "coalition of the willing" that left the United States providing most of the soldiers and money in Iraq.

Bush also said that when a president sends troops into a conflict, "the force must be strong enough so that the mission can be accomplished. And the exit strategy needs to be well-defined."

Critics say not enough troops were used to secure Iraq after Saddam was toppled and contend there's no clear exit strategy. Bush has defended troop levels and said U.S. forces will leave once Iraqis themselves can defend the country.

In the debate, Bush also said would try to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, "but it won't be on my timetable. It will be on the timetable that people are comfortable with in the Middle East."

The road map for peace laid out by the Bush administration, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, set 2005 as the goal for creating a Palestinian state. The peace process has faltered and Bush has acknowledged the 2005 target may no longer be realistic.

How a President Gore might have compared with a candidate Gore is anyone's guess, but there are hints of differences.

Gore has become a sharp critic of Bush's handling of Iraq, accusing him of undertaking "a reckless, discretionary war against a nation that posed no immediate threat to us whatsoever."

But, at the debate, Gore also promised a stronger policy against Saddam. He said Saddam needed to understand "he's dealing with us" if he threatened Israel. He also said wanted to "give robust support to the groups that are trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein."

In deflecting criticism of Clinton's Iraq policies, Gore seemed to take his rival's father, the first President Bush, to task because he did not try to topple Saddam in the Persian Gulf War.

"For whatever reasons, it was not finished in a way that removed Saddam Hussein from power. I know there are all kinds of circumstances and explanations. But the fact is that that's the situation that was left when I got there (to the vice presidency)," he said.


On the Net:

October 11, 2000 The Second Gore-Bush Presidential Debate transcript: