A quiz that matters

Foreign-policy experts come up with the real questions George W. Bush should answer.

Published December 13, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

If you're George W. Bush, suddenly all those questions about your past don't look so bad. Allegations of cocaine use? Softballs compared to what he is facing these days. That full monty routine that may or may not have happened atop a Texas bar? Fair game. In fact, ask the governor anything you'd like about his youthful indiscretions.

Just don't ask him to name any Chechens.

By now the story is so well known it could become an early turning point in the campaign. Last month, a cagey television reporter cornered Bush in Boston and asked him if he could name the leaders of four hotspots: Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Chechnya, a breakaway republic in Russia. Bush answered "Lee" for Taiwan  last names get full credit  but failed to identify any of the others.

It got worse at last week's GOP debate, when Bush volunteered he was reading James Chase's biography of Dean Acheson, but couldn't answer questions about what he'd learned from it, beyond reciting a campaign sound bite about freedom being "our nation's greatest export."

Throughout the campaign, Bush has been getting the Eliza Doolittle treatment from a handful of his party's foreign-policy mandarins. Critics on the right and the left, meanwhile, have dismissed him as an intellectual lightweight and delighted in his occasional dopey gaffes. "If Mr. Bush was telling the truth about the Acheson book, he is apparently capable of reading 512 pages of material and coming away from the exercise without a single new thought," Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times.

The quiz has given his critics an appealing angle. In the New Yorker, cartoonist Bruce McCall depicted Bush's world with a slyly mislabeled map -- Africa and South America were switched, and the Middle East was marked "Arabia" and "Jewia." The New Republic gave him a dunce cap and dumb grin for a pair of cover stories on "stupid candidates." The late shows have been merciless.

But is Bush getting a bad rap?

The day after the quiz story broke, my Foreign Policy colleagues and I were milling around a conference room waiting for an editorial meeting to start. Soon enough, conversation turned to the quiz -- specifically, who among us could claim a perfect four for four. Nobody could do it. This from a room full of people who could find Bishkek on a map without breaking a sweat.

The following week, the New Yorker editors put together their own pop quiz, and sent their fact checkers on a mission to trip up a bevy of star political journalists. Along with straightforward challenges, such as identifying the presidents of France, Sudan and Venezuela, there were a half-dozen ringers, including ZaSu Pitts (a silent movie star), Yma Sumac (a Peruvian singer) and Shun Lee West (a Manhattan restaurant).

"I thought our test was very hard," staff writer Hendrik Hertzberg confessed in a telephone interview. "I would have done very poorly myself."

Only the Washington Post's James Hoagland earned a passing mark.

Years ago, Spy magazine pulled a similar stunt, luring unwitting members of Congress into commenting on U.S. policy toward ethnic cleansing in "Freedonia." Congressman Dick Armey recalled the prank in a 1997 speech to Johns Hopkins students, suggesting that lapses in political geography tend to be forgiven.

"As you all know, Freedonia does not exist -- except as the fictional country in the movie 'The Mouse That Roared' ... For the record, if they had asked me that question, I would have cheerfully admitted I don't have a clue about Freedonia or a lot of other places for that matter." Indeed. Freedonia was actually from the Marx Brothers movie "Duck Soup."

Most pundits (those without an ax to grind, anyway) quickly wrote off Bush's pop quiz as trivia, and thus, well, trivial. He probably should have done better than one out of four, but his poor performance speaks less to his foreign policy credentials than to poor instincts. He should have smelled a trap and run like hell.

While Bush got away with a few snickers from the cognoscenti when he referred to Greeks as Grecians and Kosovars as Kosovarians earlier this year, the quiz refuses to go away. Like Dan Quayle's "potatoe" flub, it has become a kind of shorthand for these apparent intellectual and foreign-policy shortcomings.

"Maybe there's some justice to that," Hertzberg remarked. "The Grecians thing is much more disturbing, because it suggests a depth of ignorance, a kind of comprehensive lack of understanding about the world."

All the more reason to take seriously the question of how competent Bush is to run the U.S. foreign-policy show. Rather than blindly dismissing the Republican front-runner out of hand as a provincial airhead, or blindly defending him against dubious reporting, we have to make sure Bush is being asked the right questions - and pay close attention to his answers.

What should those questions be? I called up international-affairs experts and asked them, "If you could corner George W. Bush and ask him one question about his foreign policy, what would it be?"

Here are the results:

Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "Over and over again you verbally hand off questions on foreign policy to advisors you [don't have now but] would have, once elected -- something you don't do on domestic policy issues. Why is that? Do you view foreign policy as less important than other issues? Do you believe that after the Cold War a president need be less informed on these matters? How dependent should a president be on advisors on any major set of issues?"

Michael Lind, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and Washington editor of Harper's: "There's been a great deal of discussion in the past decade about the revolution in military affairs, or 'RMA.' Do you think there is an RMA? If so, would you tell us which aspects of the present military are obsolete, in terms of services and technologies. What major weapons systems or organizational systems would you phase out?"

Tarek Masoud, fellow and executive director of the Presidential Oral History Project at the Miller Center of Public Affairs: "What, if anything, would you have done in Rwanda?"

Jorge Dominguez, director of the Center for International Studies at Harvard University: "When a coup takes place in Pakistan, do you praise the coup leader as improving prospects for stability and for having been a good U.S. ally (as you told reporter Andy Hiller), or do you criticize the coup for breaking the prospects for constitutional consolidation?" And a second question, inspired by last week's World Trade Organization talks in Seattle: "What should be the role of labor and environmental standards in trade negotiations and agreements?"

J. Peter Scoblic, editor of Arms Control Today: "In your Nov. 19 foreign-policy address you said that the key to combating proliferation is 'to constrict the supply of nuclear materials and the means to deliver them -- by making this a priority with Russia and China.' Yet you oppose the test-ban treaty and support national missile defense policies that China and Russia see as absolute barriers to further progress in arms control. How do you propose to gain the cooperation of the Russians and the Chinese in future non-proliferation efforts?"

Charles Lane, editor at large, the New Republic: "How would your policy toward China be different from your father's?"

Mark Strauss, senior editor at Foreign Policy: "You have expressed amazement that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is still in power. You have said that if you found out he was developing weapons of mass destruction, you'd take them out. That's easily said, but not so easily done. How would your Persian Gulf policy differ from that of Bill Clinton? What specific steps would you take to remove Saddam from power and to prevent him from reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction?"

Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist at the New York Times: "People say, Bush, it doesn't matter what he knows. He'll have smart advisors ... And what if your two smartest advisors disagree?"

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: "Gov. Bush, how serious is your commitment to providing adequate resources for the U.S. armed forces in light of your pledge to spend all of the surplus -- and then some -- on a tax cut? And along the same lines, how would you prevent further cuts to a foreign-aid and diplomacy budget that most experts consider already underfunded?"

By Douglas McGray

Douglas McGray is associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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