- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004


Presidential debates on foreign policy may need a disclaimer: What you hear from the candidates is not necessarily what you would get in the next four years.

Consider these words from Gov. George W. Bush when he debated foreign affairs with Vice President Al Gore on Oct. 11, 2000:

“Strong relations in Europe is in our nation’s interest.”

“If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re humble but strong, they’ll welcome us.”

“We’re going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That’s what it’s meant to do. And when it gets overextended, morale drops.”

Yet during the Bush presidency, relations with leading European nations have become frayed over the Iraq war and other issues. And Vice President Dick Cheney bluntly said on the campaign trail: “We will never seek a permission slip to defend the United States of America.”

And Iraq has evolved from the quick ouster of a dictator into the largest of all nation-building projects since World War II, with the U.S. military running the country for more than a year and the National Guard and Reserve stretched to keep enough troops in Iraq.

That Mr. Bush’s presidency would differ from his debate language is not surprising.

Just moving into the Oval Office can change a politician’s world view. Unforeseen events can lead to a drastic reshuffling of national security priorities — and few presidents have had to deal with an event of the magnitude of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Moreover, the foreign policy agenda has changed. The Balkans and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were big issues in the 2000 debate; terrorism was not even mentioned.

It is hard to imagine that four years from now the expected big issues in last night’s debate — Iraq and terrorism — will have disappeared. But other issues could boil over in that time, such as Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, turmoil in Haiti, or the uncertain future of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

None of this means that candidates’ comments are irrelevant. Some of Mr. Bush’s policies clearly reflected his positions in the debate. He said he would pursue anti-ballistic missile systems — and he did. He said foreign aid should encourage free markets and political reforms. That became the basis of his Millennium Challenge Account program.

Most significantly, Mr. Bush made clear he would get tough on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“We don’t know whether he’s developing weapons of mass destruction. He better not be or there’s going to be a consequence should I be the president,” he said during that 2000 debate.

How a President Gore might have compared with Mr. Gore’s debate language is anyone’s guess, but there are hints of differences.

Mr. Gore has become a sharp critic of Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq, accusing him of undertaking “a reckless, discretionary war against a nation that posed no immediate threat to us whatsoever.”

But, at the debate, Mr. Gore also promised a stronger policy against Saddam. He said Saddam needed to understand “he’s dealing with us” if he threatened Israel. He also said he wanted to “give robust support to the groups that are trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein.”

In deflecting criticism of President Clinton’s Iraq policies, Mr. Gore took his rival’s father, the first President Bush, to task because he did not try to topple Saddam in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

“For whatever reasons, it was not finished in a way that removed Saddam Hussein from power. I know there are all kinds of circumstances and explanations. But the fact is that that’s the situation that was left when I got” to the vice presidency, he said.

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