Politics & Policy

Bush, Gore, & Nation-Building

Gore's experience hasn't left him wiser.

The Gore campaign is pushing the idea that George Bush is not just dumb but that his policies reflect that stupidity. They are primarily pointing to the fact that Bush wants to call back U.S. troops from the Balkans. Now, I probably disagree with Bush myself on this point. Hell, I still think the U.S. should consider imposing civilization around the globe.

But the Gore people are trying to suggest that Bush’s position isn’t merely ill-considered; they want to say that only a dumb and ignorant person could have come up with such an idea. This is, of course, absurd. But let’s put that aside for a moment. I rather like the idea that each man’s alleged policy flaws are the direct result of his character flaws. I think there’s something to that. After all Bush says he wants a “humble” foreign policy — which makes me a little nervous — and Bush is a pretty humble guy.

And Al Gore is not. Al Gore is a smart man who believes he is smarter than everybody else. Al Gore believes he knows what is right and that people who disagree with him must necessarily be wrong — morally, politically, philosophically.

Since he’s vice president, Gore doesn’t actually have any power, so we cannot say that he suffers from the arrogance of power. But he surely believes in the power of arrogance. He likes to bully people, mock them. In debates he tries to force his opponents into sounding ignorant of an obscure fact so he can leap to the conclusion that specific ignorance is symptomatic philosophical folly. Gore’s approach seems to be: “Ah, you don’t know the atomic weight of plutonium? Well, then, can we trust you to mind our nuclear weapons programs?”

On foreign policy, Gore suffers in part from what afflicted President Bush: a tendency to confuse a thick rolodex with expertise. The difference is that President Bush really was an expert at using his rolodex. A former head of the CIA, ambassador to China, and detail man on the Reagan foreign-policy team, the elderBush may have lacked the “vision thing” but he was precisely what the world needed in the wake of the Cold War. Reagan won the Cold War, but it was Bush who cleaned things up — putting Germany together again, fighting the Gulf War, etc.

There is remarkably little evidence that Gore is this sort of expert in rolodex foreign policy. Gore boasts that he ran America’s Russia policy; this is actually a euphemism for letting Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin run America’s Russia policy. The vice president green-lighted a deal to allow the Russians to continue selling weapons to Iran on the promise that once the existing contracts were fulfilled, the Russians would stop selling to the patrons of Hezbollah. Further, Gore agreed, according to the New York Times, to keep the pact secret from everybody — including Congress — thus violating the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act that Gore himself cosponsored (shouldn’t people who bleat about the perfidy of Iran-Contra have even the slightest problem with this?). Oh, and Russia is still selling weapons to our partners in peace in Tehran.

But Al Gore does consider himself something of a visionary too and that’s what scares me. He believes that he can put the world aright. And this is where his lack of humility comes out most clearly. During the second debate, Bush bemoaned the fact that our adventures in Somalia “started off as a humanitarian mission then changed into a nation-building mission…. And so I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.”

Gore responded that America needs to be engaged in the world (Bush thinks so too). But Gore then went on to defend the idea of “nation-building”: “What did we do in the late ’40s and ’50s and ’60s? We were nation-building,” In Japan, Germany, etc. “And it was economic, but it was also military. And the confidence that those countries recovering from the wounds of war had by having troops there — we had civil administrators come in to set up their ways of building their towns back.”

Now, this is frightening stuff. Japan had a “national” identity for a thousand years before WWII. The German nation was of a much more recent vintage, but few people in the wake of World War II felt that what the Germans needed was a much stronger sense of nationalism. In 1945, Germany needed more nationalist fervor like it needed more anti-Semitism or blander food. The other countries “rebuilt” under the Marshall Plan never lost their sense of nationhood. France, for example, had survived World War II with its grand national tradition of surrender more secure than ever.

In The New Republic’s shocking endorsement of Al Gore this week, they cheer this idea that rebuilding the economic infrastructure of Western nations after World War II is somehow analogous to what the Clinton administration has been doing. But the Clinton administration’s definition of nation-building is to get a bunch of exotic-looking people to sign worthless pieces of paper. When we rebuilt Japan, we did it by securing their total surrender after a long war which was concluded with two atomic weapons. We then occupied Japan for a decade. And again, Japan never doubted it was a nation; the question was always, what kind of nation would it be?

Now, I am all in favor of helping Third World countries, I’m even on record saying we should consider, in effect, recolonizing much of Africa (see “A Continent Bleeds” and “Goldberg’s African Invasion.”). George Bush seems to recognize that nation-building is hard and fraught with peril, and therefore not worth the effort. I think this is an honorable and prudent position, even if I disagree with parts of it. But Al Gore seems to think nation-building is not merely easy, but simply a procedure we can apply anywhere at any time. In light of this, I think the conventional wisdom that Gore benefits from the wisdom of experience, and that Bush is dim because he is lacking in this regard, has things exactly backwards.

Hey everybody, if I seem a little low-key today it is because of the bacchanalian nature of this weekend. On Friday night I attended the 45th anniversary of National Review. It was a grand affair, though few people saw much grandeur in the stumbling fat guy who only wanted to talk about page impressions and women’s-prison movies.

Then on Saturday night I attended the wedding of my friend Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine. It was a beautiful event set against the Blue Ridge Mountains, though few people found much beauty in the stumbling fat guy who only wanted to talk about page impressions and women’s-prison movies.

And tonight (Monday) I will be appearing on Fox News’s The Edge with Paula Zahn. It promises to be an erudite conversation about the political campaign, though few viewers will find much erudition in the stumbling fat guy who only wants to talk about page impressions and women’s-prison movies.


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