Bush channels Reagan on foreign policy

With his first major speech, the GOP front-runner sought to put a string of gaffes behind him.

Topics: George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Texas,

George W. Bush sure looked comfortable striding to the front of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library auditorium as the audience rose in applause. He sat serenely as former Secretary of State George Shultz sang the praises of Nancy Reagan, who was in the audience, and Ronald, who was not. And, along with much of the audience, he smiled as Shultz repeated, with a crescendo in his voice and a swing in his arm, Reagan’s most famous sound bite on global affairs: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.”

Indeed, if you didn’t know better observing the gathering of several hundred in the hilly scrub land north of Los Angeles, you’d think it was a 10th anniversary gala of fin de siecle cold warriors celebrating the defeat of communism. And there’s good reason the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president felt at home in such a setting. After all, his father, first as vice president and later as president, was at the center of that steadfast neo-realist policy. And he had gathered some of the period’s leading officials, from Shultz to Condoleezza Rice, to tutor him on that trickiest (especially given his string of recent flubs) of subjects: foreign affairs.

In his first major policy speech, Bush spoke Friday at the library about a foreign policy designed to take America into a changing world. Funny thing is, if we are to believe his speech, not so much has changed since Shultz et al left Washington at the end of the Cold War. In a powerful address full of broad brush strokes evoking American power and strength of character, the Texas governor outlined a foreign policy that harks back a generation, to when his father was an ambassador and he was in grad school at Harvard.

Backward looking or not, it was a solid speech, and Bush needed it. In a campaign so far characterized by a platform with few planks, the Texas governor has been accused of trying to slide into the nomination on his massive war chest. And he’s received a slew of bad publicity over his foreign affairs gaffes in particular.

He confused Slovakia with Slovenia and called Greeks “Grecians.” In his most famous slip, Bush was ambushed earlier this month by a Boston television reporter, who challenged him to name the leaders of Chechnya, Pakistan, India and Taiwan. He only got Taiwan correct. His advisors no doubt hoped Friday’s address will erase such mistakes from the public conscience.

Those advisors include many veterans of the Reagan/Bush years. In Condoleeza Rice, a National Security Council member under his father and Stanford professor, Bush has a respected and, just as vital, telegenic senior advisor who happens to be African-American (his media handlers made sure she was available to the press, and especially the television cameras, both before and after the speech, although Bush himself, notably, was not.)

In the world according to Bush, the United States’ core concerns are Russia, China and nukes. And hanging over it all like a dark umbrella the notion that the world is a dangerous place, and America must look out for its interests first. After the requisite salutations to the Reagans, Bush came out with this pessimistic zinger: “Even in this time of pride and promise, America has determined enemies, who hate our values and resent our success; terrorists and crime syndicates and drug cartels and unbalanced dictators. The Empire has passed, but evil remains.” Sounds almost Reaganesque.

So what is the rest of the world to expect from President George W. Bush in the dark days to come? First, increased defense spending and what appears to be a revival of sorts for Reagan’s pet, the “Star Wars” missile defense system. Second, an assertive and engaged America that will defend all principles of free trade on one hand and use its military might only to protect its interests on the other (ie. less “humanitarian intervention”).

In such a worldview, Russia and China are less protagonists than antagonists, especially China, which Bush blasted. Bush also took a swipe at the Clinton administration, implicitly accusing it of bumbling through the last seven years by jumping from crisis to crisis with no clear policy. But, more importantly, he also served notice to congressional Republicans, and their growing trend toward isolationism, by saying that in no way will his administration disengage from the world.

Spaced among his rhetorical flourishes were also some solid ideas and proposals. At the forefront is defense. Bush promises to “restore the morale” of the military through better training and better pay. That, of course, takes money. And he plans to divert a lot of it not only to the grunts, but to technology. Although he didn’t give numbers, in the past Bush has said he would increase defense spending by $20 billion over Clinton’s proposed $173 billion increase.

By far the world’s most advanced nation at the art of killing is going to get even better. “We must master the new technology of war; to extend our peaceful influence, not just across the world, but across the years,” he said. Sure, that does sound odd, mastering war to bring peace. But that is Reagan’s philosophy, so why stray?

Bush intends to “develop and deploy” anti-missile systems, although he failed to address whether this is even viable, given the spotty track record of such devices, most notably the “Patriot” anti-missile missile. The development of a new type of Strategic Defense Initiative plays into Bush’s fear of nuclear weapons, which in turn are at the heart of his policy toward Russia. “Under the mutual threat of rogue nations, there is a real possibility the Russians could join with us and our friends and allies to cooperate on missile defense systems. But there is condition. Russia must break its dangerous habit of proliferation,” he said.

Bush quoted a Department of Energy report saying that Russia’s nuclear stockpiles may be 30 percent higher than thought. He demanded a re-count. And while he favors a continued moratorium on America’s nuclear testing, Bush categorically opposes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (no worries for him on that, so does Congress.)

Bush had some harsh words for Russia, his putative partner in eradicating nukes, calling for a refocusing of aid from “a corrupt and favored elite” to “the Russian people” (although he did not say how that would be done.) And just in case Russia had any ideas about reconstituting the old Soviet Union, he sent a warning to Moscow, with a nod to Chechnya. “A return to Russian imperialism would endanger both Russian democracy and the states on Russia’s borders,” he said.

But if his stance toward Russia was one of wariness, he was outright hostile toward China, which in a Bush presidency might eclipse radical Islam as the new bogeyman. Bush calls China a power “in transition,” one that he hopes will be “free and prosperous.” But if Beijing thinks that means more trade agreements, he went on to say, “China is a competitor, not a strategic partner. We must deal with China without ill-will; but without illusions.”

Bush called China an “espionage threat” and pointed with alarm at its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. As for its domestic policies, “China’s government is an enemy of religious freedom and a sponsor of forced abortion; policies without reason and without mercy.”

If Bush wanted to project strength, he did. Are his policies workable? Are they sound? That’s for the analysts in ivory towers and on pundit television shows to decide as the campaign heats up. It may or may not matter to a population largely disconnected from international affairs.

The real test will come on the campaign trail, when Bush has to think on his feet to answer real-life questions about hot spots in the day’s news. Friday’s speech was a win for the GOP front-runner, but the decision not to take questions from the media afterwards hints that Bush’s advisors don’t think their student is entirely ready for prime time.

Mark Dennis is a Los Angeles freelance writer.

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