January 31, 2001

Bush Team: Good People, No Larger Vision Yet

Once again, Iím mainly passing on information, offering only a smattering of commentary or assessment. The source is an experienced retired diplomat who knows many of and has worked with some of the members of the Bush foreign policy team. He offered his comments last week to members of the Orange County World Affairs Council.

John Malott retired to Laguna Niguel, in Orange County, a couple of years ago after a 31-year career in the foreign service, his last posting having been as U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia. He was recently chosen as Chairman of the Orange County World Affairs Council, which is not necessarily the definition of leisurely retirement, replacing former Tory Member of Parliament Sir Eldon Griffiths, who was recently elected chairman of the board of trustees of the national World Affairs Council. I have to confess that although I believe his vision of the US is somewhat more expansive than mine – though less so than that of many professional diplomats – I like John Malott and believe that for a career diplomat heís a pretty straight shooter.

Praising the Bush team as the best group, in terms of experience and competence he has seen in the top positions in the last 30 years, Mr. Malott sounded a major cautionary note (and several minor ones). The major problem, he believes, is that the United States has not yet decided what its position, mission and role in the world should be in the years since the Cold War ended. Leadership was thrust upon the United States by events and unsought threats to national survival in 1945, he said, but with the demise of the Soviet Union the world has changed markedly.

The United States is now the dominant power in the world – politically, militarily, economically, scientifically, culturally – and there is no nation our power that seriously threatens its national existence or is likely to do so. But we havenít yet decided what our role in the changed world out there should be. It will require a national debate and discussion in which the people themselves should play at least as large a role as their leaders – and ultimately convey their decisions to their leaders before the leaders decide by default but not necessarily through consensus – to define a positive vision for the United States.

Only when our role is defined and understood, says Mr. Malott, can we make intelligent decisions about how large the military should be and how it should be configured, what our posture should be in trade negotiations, where, how and on what basis we will intervene in other parts of the world. Defense posture, the Middle East, the scope if any of "humanitarian" interventions are all subsidiary to the larger question of what our role in the world will be. If President Bush leads the way and helps to define a role the people agree with and understand, his presidency can be successful. If the discussion over the larger issue of Americaís role in the world does not take place, we can expect a certain amount of drifting and improvising.

That said, Mr. Malott believes Dick Cheney was a good choice as vice president, that he is a good crisis manager able to keep other peoplesí egos in check even as he controls his own. Mr. Malott expects that the senior Mr. Bush will be available – not running things behind the scenes as some have speculated, but available – and that will not be a bad thing.

Condolleeza Rice, Mr. Malott believes, is intelligent and well-versed. He is charmed by the fact that she is a concert-quality pianist. But he wonders about her relative lack of experience in government (about two years in a staff position, though an important one, at the National Security Council). How she will referee clashes, if they come, between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, both powerful figures?

Colin Powell, at Secretary of State, is very qualified and likely to rely on career people more than outside experts. His team could include Richard Armitage, a military and defense expert who is not universally admired (especially by Perotistas) and Ed Jasidjian, who worked in the Reagan administration and with James Baker on Mideast issues. Paul Wolfowitz is a career diplomat lately at Johns Hopkins, whom Mr. Malott describes as brilliant and thoughtful. I call him a bit of a hawk, but weíll see.

Mr. Malott believes it was a good idea to keep George Tenet as head of the CIA and hopes he stays a long time, to improve continuity and a certain independence in offering information. I think the CIA should be abolished, but thatís a subject for another column.

Mr. Malott says that President Bush trusts and feels comfortable with Laurence Lindsey, his chief economic adviser, and notes that Treasury Secretary Paul OíNeill has a good background, both in government and industry. He believes, however, that while Wall Street bankers have not always been successful treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin under Clinton was the exception and will be hard to top. Personally, Iím baffled at the esteem in which Mr. Rubin is held, but it seems to be real and widespread.

Ann Veneman as Secretary of Agriculture will face more international challenges than some might think. Agriculture is crucial to US foreign commerce, and tussles over genetically engineered food, mad cow disease and the reluctance of nearly every developed country (including ours) to give up farm subsidies await her.

Bob Zelleck, a former top aide to James Baker, as US Trade Representative may have a harder time than some expect, Mr. Malott suggests. It is easy to be for free trade when the economy is booming, but harder in times of slowdown. There is growing opposition to the very concept of globalization in certain quarters both at home and around the world. Calls for reciprocal environmental and labor laws will demand attention. Malott says the chief trade negotiator needs to be a good schmoozer and Zelleckís "people skills" might benefit from some polishing.

I question the benefit of most trade negotiations at all. The best approach would be for the United States to make manifest its support for free trade by eliminating all its tariffs and other barriers to trade and inviting the rest of the world to watch how we prosper and go and do likewise, without requiring it. Free trade benefits the country that adopts it most of all, by giving consumers more choices and the ability to access lower prices. Trade negotiations often amount to declarations that "Weíll stop punishing our people who are foolish enough to believe restrictions amount to protection if youíll stop punishing your people. You go first." So they are often protracted, bitter and fruitless.

The United States may have a new administration of a different party in power, but conditions have not changed drastically in the world out there, Mr. Malott says. The issues and problems that faced the Clinton administration will still be there for President Bush. Changing relations with the European allies will need attention, and Canada and Mexico, our closest neighbors will remain important, especially Mexico with a new government and the possibility of a new approach. Both Russia and China have huge potential for impressive good or pesky problems in relation to the United States – not that they should be treated as an imminent threat or a close partner, but that they bear watching with a realistic eye and encouragement sometimes. China believes it is destined to dominate Asia and is likely to want to reduce US influence there, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Drugs, immigration and terrorism are issues that have both a foreign policy and domestic aspect, with great potential to affect the lives of Americans for good or ill. Among countries the new administration will keep an eye on are Colombia – the question of what weíre doing there hasnít been answered satisfactorily – and Cuba, at least when Fidel Castro dies. Mr. Malott believes the new administration will pull back from the kind of frenetic focus on the Middle East of the last year, and will pay attention to nuclear issues between India and Pakistan without imagining that it can step in and solve them.

My own preference would be for the Bush administration to have a much more modest conception of the US role in the world than the Clinton administration had. Notions like "humanitarian intervention" and "nation-building" are uncomfortably vague and open-ended. We know our government canít solve all the domestic problems the United States faces – far from it – so how do we expect it to apply a magic wand to intractable problems overseas? A becoming modesty is more likely to increase the respect in which the United States is held than the kind of amateurish arrogance and improvisation that have characterized the last eight years.

Mr. Malott is correct, however, that no matter how it comes out – and I believe that while non-interventionists can rightfully demand a seat at the decision-making table we canít predict what influence we will have in the short run – the national discussion over these larger issues is overdue. With any luck, we will take advantage of the fact that we have a degree of peace and no imminent threats facing us and hold it beginning now, before the next crisis confronts us.

I doubt that will happen, however. More likely the Bush administration will be forced to improvise before it has a consensus on the role-in-the-world question.

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on Antiwar.com.

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