Bush's strong suit


TWO WEEKS ago, the chattering class was abuzz with dump-Quayle talk. Last week was dump-on-Bush week. As a member in good standing of the No Fan of George Bush Club, I say this is starting to look like piling on.

Besides, the president's liberal critics attack him for many of the wrong reasons -- something that may yet backfire on them.

The Democrats, giddy about their poll numbers, have summoned the courage to challenge George Bush even on foreign policy. They've found a vulnerability -- the administration's prewar treatment of Iraq -- and are pumping it for all it's worth. Like a fisherman who has unwittingly snagged a beer can, the Democrats' boasting of superiority on this issue is premature.

The critics are correct that the administration was far too lenient with the Iraqis before the war. But they hardly have standing to complain. Their party has been in the coddling-tyrants business for decades.

The U.S. State Department has been the bureaucratic arm of Democratic foreign policy. Only strong presidential leadership has overcome State's tropism in the direction of appeasement and accommodation.

For example, throughout the Reagan administration, when the popular view held that the United States was taking a hard line against the communist government of Nicaragua, State was constantly circulating proposals within the administration for Central American peace plans that would have guaranteed the survival of the Sandinistas.

The State Department was eager for good relations with the Soviet Union, China and even Cuba. The arguments were always the same. If we isolate these regimes and say nasty (but true) things about them, we stand no chance of moderating their conduct. If, by contrast, we cultivate diplomatic contacts, trade and goodwill, we can apply subtle pressure that is far more likely to do the job than public grandstanding.

The State Department is nearly always wrong -- just ask newly free Russians who glorify Ronald Reagan -- but it does have the virtue of consistency. No matter who is in the White House, the State Department chugs along on the same track. At least Republican presidents tell State to go jump in a lake every now and then.

Recall that under Jimmy Carter, and probably on the advice of folks at State, we "coddled" Daniel Ortega, the communist leader of Nicaragua. Mr. Carter offered him foreign aid and the Peace Corps (the aid was accepted, the Peace Corps was turned away) and hosted him at the White House.

It was Mr. Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, who told the world in 1977 that Cuban troops in Africa were a "stabilizing" influence.

Sure Mr. Bush was mistaken to take a soft line on Saddam. He acknowledges that now. Do Democrats admit that they were wrong about Nicaragua? Or Cuba? Or the Soviet Union?

The Democratic Party has been weak on national defense for a generation, and the American people know it. That's why the image of Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank was so preposterous.

The president may have been wrong about Saddam before Aug. 2, 1990, but Democrats were wrong about him after that. Not even the bloody conquest of Kuwait persuaded the Democratic leadership, Mr. Clinton (but not Al Gore) included, that Saddam had to be stopped.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore may enjoy some temporary credibility when they attack the president for weakness on Iraq. But it won't last. Soon the electorate will be reminded that when it counted -- when there was a crystal clear threat to our national interests -- the Democratic Party was paralyzed. Despite the president's masterful assembly of an international coalition (just what the internationalist Democrats had always said was needed before any use of force), despite the threat to U.S. citizens and to a critical resource, and despite the massive human rights violations of a venal enemy, many in the Democratic Party were too timid to take action.

President Bush was not. That's his strong suit.

Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.

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