October 30, 2000
Some time ago I read a pamphlet put out by the British Libertarian Alliance arguing for a British Bill of Rights, the subtitle was "Why broken promises are better than no promises at all". I wasnít convinced of the case for a judicially enforced Bill of Rights, and still I remain agnostic, but it did have a good subtitle. It is commonly accepted that there is no real difference between the two candidates, the rhetoric masking a fundamental agreement on substance, and this is often a case made in Britain about the Conservative Party and Europe. I think that this is mistaken. This election is important because on the issue of foreign affairs the people are being offered a choice, even if only rhetorical, but the rhetorical difference is all important.
So what has George W Bush been saying on foreign policy? Heís no isolationist, and I donít think that we should pretend that he is or act with anything but surprise if he acts like one in office. So what is he? Despite his legendary inability to remember the head of state of Uzbekistan or the monetary unit of the Cook Islands (or more of an embarrassment his description of Greeks as Grecians) dubya does have a lot to say on foreign policy. And considering how slowly thinking moves on this subject, a lot of it is (relatively) radical. The basic principle behind Bushís foreign policy is that of the National Interest. This may not sound that great, after all politicians are always going on about how electing them into the footnotes of history will make the nation great, but it will be a radical break from Clintonian policy, a policy that both Gore and Mrs Clinton both still applaud. The idea that foreign aid should not go to the trendiest cause or the most powerful lobby, but to the countries that are strategically important, is not getting rid of foreign aid but at least using it for something half way useful for America.
The idea that the troops should be removed from Kosovo and Bosnia may be to prepare them for another war, and it may never be carried out, but it is still a recognition that the presence in the former Yugoslavia is damaging to military readiness. In Albert Gore Jrís words it is "irresponsible" to keep the troops in Yugoslavia, whatever your plans for them. The fact that most Democrats do not recognise this means that Bush has to say very little to have a less insane policy, and Bush has said it. If America is to go into needless wars, it is better that the troops are at least prepared for it rather than degraded. I also happen to think that Bush is less likely to get the West into these needless wars, but the point still stands Ė the American military should not be degraded at whim. The fact that Albert Gore or his allies just cannot see this shows just how desperately they need to be replaced.
So what of this national interest? The proponents of this "doctrine" are a motley bunch, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Richard Perle and even Norman Podhoretz. The idea that attaching primary importance to the national interest can or should be a doctrine is a sign of how bad things have got, what else is the purpose of national security but to secure the nation? The idea that one should interfere in other countries because the media happens to be there would in a more enlightened time just be considered the ranting of a lunatic. Today the lunatics have taken over the asylum. But what of the dissident faction that put forward what used to be treated as blatantly obvious? They are not exactly united, and some of them, like the Pod, should not really be taken at face value. But among Star Warriors like Richard Perle, there are also characters like Colin Powell, who was a sceptic on Yugoslav action. They are not isolationists, but they are patriots. That is important. And it is more important that these people are around Bush.
I wasnít always an isolationist. There was one time that I was as internationalist as anyone. How did I find my way to good sense? There was the strong dose of free market liberalism, which often takes over right wing Labourites who leave, and the application of this generally laissez faire attitude to social and international questions was fairly inevitable. But the main impetus was the discovery of a school of thought in international relations, realism, a field that I still plough. This school of thought, which is briefly the belief that the way to a more peaceful world are nations acting in their own interests, rather than crusading in wars to end all wars. The theorists of this school donít exactly read like a pantheon of isolationist heroes, George Kennan, Henry Kissinger and Reinhold Niebuhr the Protestant theologian. However the ultimate logic of their views, which was admittedly rarely followed, was that most engagement (government engagement, not trade) was pointless. Why should UK peacekeepers be in Sierra Leone, what vital interest is in Africa? Security guarantees for people like Estonia and Slovakia are foolhardy if they are on the border with Russia. Why go to war for Israel? Although I would defend arming the Mujahadeen and the overthrow of Allende, even Star Wars, because we were fighting a hostile and ambitious power, after that hostile power is gone, what is left for the realists but keeping a beady eye on your borders and sea lanes? Now Colin Powell or Richard Perle do not take their rhetoric, or Bushís rhetoric, to its logical conclusion, but it is there. Non-interventionism is best argued from the point of national interest. They may not be spouting that argument but they are speaking the right language.
When Bush, or his advisor, said that American troops should withdraw from the Balkans, the important thing was that it was said. The idea that it will be done, at least in one term, is fallacious. Of course it can be, but there are so many troops, so many allies, and so many excuses, that there will still be American troops in five years time. There should be a decrease in American troops, but as I said the importance was that it was said at all. There is now a benchmark, if the Republicans win. Instead of castigating the government for its underlying principles on antiwar.com we can now castigate them for not sticking to their principles. That shifts the terms of argument considerably. We wonít have won, but we will have chosen our own pitch to play the game.
There are a number of candidates who are far better than Bush. The Libertarians, even with the freelance assassin policy of Harry Browne, do have a coherent non-interventionist policy. Ralph Nader does put out a non-interventionist policy, of sorts. And Pat Buchanan, who is so wrong about trade and immigration, is right on foreign policy Ė and has actually thought about it. The media would ignore an America First policy, which should be second nature to any self-respecting American government, if it werenít for him. He has fought an honourable campaign. Sadly he canít win.
I am a British subject, not an American citizen. I can not vote in your elections, and you should not listen to any endorsement from me. I have no legitimate interest, other than an academic one, in the domestic issues. On foreign policy I have three interests, (1) who will take us into fewer wars, (2) who will be friendly towards a eurosceptic Britain and (3) who will stop interfering in Northern Ireland. On (1) and (2) dubya is undoubtedly better, on (3) it will be Al Gore Ė I donít know whether the Kennedy clan has noticed this yet. I have no right to say who I prefer but I will be very happy if a certain bullying, insincere dork loses, and loses big.
Here is what the Bush web site has to say about foreign policy:
Governor Bush believes that American foreign policy must be more than the management of crisis. It must have a great and guiding goal: to turn this time of American influence into generations of democratic peace. This is accomplished by concentrating on enduring national interests and by resisting the temptation to withdraw from the world. As President, George W. Bush will pursue a distinctly American internationalism. He will set priorities and stick to them to avoid drift in foreign policy.
Bit of both really, isnít it.
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