As then Gov. George W. Bush prepared to debate Vice President Al Gore last year, his foreign policy advisors Condoleezza Rice and Bob Zoellick used to express frustration when their boss clearly hadn't read their briefing papers.
He did this even though foreign policy was a clear area of weakness for the president, who called Greeks "Grecians" and Kosovars "Kosovarians," confused Slovenia and Slovakia, and failed a Boston TV reporter's pop quiz about the names of the leaders of India, Pakistan, Chechnya and Taiwan.
Bush's inability to recall the names of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pakistani Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf (or "General," as Bush called him) and Chechen President Aslam Maskhadov -- he identified Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, as "Lee" -- was defended by pols and foreign policy experts at the time.
Even then President Clinton got into the act. "If Mr. Bush was president, he would soon enough learn their names," Clinton said. "But the real -- the more -- most important thing is, Do you have a clear idea of what the world ought to look like and what American policy ought to be in these areas?"
Not even 100 days into his presidency, Bush has already caused two foreign policy dust-ups by what appears may have been a lack of understanding about precisely what American foreign policy "ought to look like" in certain areas. Whether this suggests bad briefing, a brief attention span or a worldview that doesn't factor in nuance is unclear.
What is clear is that Bush's remark Wednesday to ABC's "Good Morning America" that the U.S. would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself" in the event of an attack by China is no longer the kind of comment that could be chuckled off for its poor grammar or ignorance of geopolitics.
For more than a generation, the U.S. government has made a point of walking a fine line between expressing support for Taiwan and refusing to make an express pledge one way or the other on what the U.S. military would do were China to attack -- which China has pledged to do should Taiwan formally declare its independence.
Though Bush tried to clarify his remarks later in the day on CNN -- "Nothing has really changed in policy, as far as I'm concerned," the president said; "we support the 'one-China' policy" -- those remarks were still putting on their shoes as his previous comments traveled around the world and back. There are no "give-backs" when it comes to such statements.
"We have been deliberately vague about the circumstances under which we would come to Taiwan's defense," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. "Not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing."
Beijing's reaction was, of course, much harsher. "We are deeply concerned about this," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said, according to the Xinhua News Agency. "There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is part of China and not a 'protectorate' of any other nation. This is a fact known to the entire international community. The United States has made solemn commitments to the Chinese government and people on the Taiwan issue, promising to stick to the 'one-China' policy and abide by the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués as well as other commitments."
Zhang also noted that Bush's comments were poorly timed, coming as they did shortly after the U.S. had pledged to sell arms to Taiwan -- and left unmentioned the recent standoff over the felled U.S. spy plane.
How could the president make such brazen comments without knowing the significance of what he said? His handlers have already spun otherwise, calling the statements in line with U.S. policy. But they said that just last month, too, when Bush made another gaffe, accusing the North Koreans of violating "agreements" with the U.S. (The United States has only one agreement with North Korea, one that a senior administration official admitted we had "no evidence" that the country was violating.) A White House spokesman later said that President Bush was referring to possible future agreements, though his statement -- "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements" -- sure didn't make it sound as if he was speaking about hypothetical situations.
"That's how the president speaks," an administration spokesman then explained to the New York Times. No doubt there will be some explaining to do again this time.