On Foreign Policy, Even Bush's Strong Suit Is Weak


Taking his leave of the State Department, James A. Baker III said that the Bush administration can claim a successful foreign-policy stewardship based on its handling of: the Cold War's end; relations with the Soviet Union and its successor states; German reunification; the gulf war. In truth, the administration's foreign-policy record is one of failure, not success.

To begin with, the administration found excuse after excuse to withhold assistance for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms when such support might have prevented the Soviet Union's potentially catastrophic unraveling. Even the August 1991 coup in Moscow did not instill a sense of urgency in the administration. Earlier this year former President Nixon described as "pathetically inadequate" the administration's efforts to help Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's reforms. Russia's fate is an important concern because when empires collapse, major wars are often the result.

Although the administration ultimately bowed to the inevitable by facilitating German reunification, its initial reaction was to try to stop it by imposing insuperable conditions; reasserting the right of the Big Four World War II allies to determine Germany's fate; sending Mr. Baker to East Berlin in December 1989, to prop up the East German government. These actions, and the repeatedly voiced (off the record) U.S. unease over Germany's great-power emergence have noticeably chilled U.S.-German relations -- an estrangement harmful to America's long-term interests.

Although it fortuitously happened to be in office at the time, the administration did not end the Cold War; it was a hobo on the freight train of history. The locomotive was driven by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Mr. Gorbachev, who bypassed Washington to nail down German reunification's details.

The United States may yet be haunted by the administration's insistence on having its own way with Moscow, on Germany and arms control. One-sided peace settlements seldom last. On the contrary, they create grievances that cause future conflict. With another Moscow coup a real possibility, Russia today eerily resembles the Weimar Republic: a humiliated, territorially amputated great power rocked by domestic, economic and political upheaval.

The administration's Persian Gulf policy has also failed. Before 1990, the administration not only allowed Baghdad to obtain U.S. technology and loans despite intelligence warnings that these were being diverted for military purposes, but it even planned joint U.S-Iraq military exercises. The administration belief that it could "moderate" Iraq's behavior was a colossal political misjudgment for which it would be held politically accountable.

Even Desert Storm has proved hollow because military victory yielded no geopolitical gains. Saddam Hussein is still in power. Removing him would either bring to power a new regime that would follow Saddam Hussein's external and internal policies (CIA Director Robert Gates' view) or lead to Iraq's disintegration. The latter would make Iran, rearming and seeking nuclear weapons, the region's dominant power.

Most damningly, the administration has allowed the economic basis of America's power to erode. President Bush denies U.S. power has declined but the facts say otherwise. The administration does not understand that foreign and domestic policy are intertwined.

The administration lacks a strategic vision of America's post-Cold War world role but it is not clear that the Democrats have one. Gov. Bill Clinton deserves credit for recognizing both the importance of helping Russia and the domestic-foreign policy nexus. In other respects, however, the Democratic Party's foreign policy rhetoric differs little from the recycled Wilsonianism and Cold War bromides that underpin the administration's new world order.

The real foreign-policy dividing line today is neither partisan nor ideological. It is between indiscriminate interventionists, who want to base foreign policy on projecting American values abroad, and realists who believe that it must be prudently based on tangible interests because there are limits to America's power to remake the world.

A Clinton administration could scarcely do worse in foreign policy than the Bush administration has done. Whether it could do better is an open question. A lot hinges on the answer.

Christopher Layne teaches international politics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad