The most dangerous myth about the Bush administration is
that its foreign policy is guided by competent (if not compassionate)
conservatives, whose outlook reflects experience and whose belligerence equals
realism. The unsettling truth is that the members of the dominant faction
around George W. Bush are, like him, stumblers frozen in a bygone era. The
experience of the past tumultuous decade has taught them little, and the only
“realism” of which they seem capable is of the variety that C. Wright Mills
memorably called “crackpot.”
With their hostility to arms control and their contempt for
international institutions and treaties, members of the Bush team (or, more
precisely, the Cheney team) are fashioning a policy which deserves to be called
“national insecurity.” They are recreating the Cold War without Communism. And
the only departure from the neo-isolationism which deforms their thinking is on
questions of trade and commerce, where American interests will eventually and
inevitably suffer from their penchant for irrational action.
The latest and most troubling evidence of incompetence in
the White House arrived about two weeks ago. That was when the first reports
leaked out about the administration’s plan to scale back the aid we provide to
the Russian government for reducing and securing their stockpiles of nuclear
armaments and weapons-grade plutonium. On March 18, The Washington Post
reported that Bush budget-cutters intended to cut next year’s appropriations of
nuclear-safety assistance for Russia by 12 percent from this year’s level, and
by 30 percent below the amount proposed by the Clinton administration. The
amounts in question are comparatively trivial-less than $500 million in a total
annual outlay of $1.9 trillion-but the idiocy is gargantuan.
For reasons known only to the Post management, this scary scoop was buried on page A23 of the
Sunday paper. It still generated sufficient uproar among sane members of
Congress that, on March 29, the President announced he had scheduled Russian
nuclear aid for a “full review” by officials of the State, Defense and Energy
departments (as well as the geniuses at the Office of Management and Budget).
“We want to make sure that the money is being spent in an effective way,” he
explained at a White House news conference.
That must sound reasonable enough to anyone who doesn’t know
much, including Mr. Bush himself. In fact, however, the programs that his
advisers will now take months to “review”-while tensions with Russia grow
worse-have already been subjected to intensive review by people who know a lot.
Among the knowledgeable is former Senator Howard Baker, a Republican who served
as co-chairman of a bipartisan commission that has been studying those same
programs. Mr. Baker, who happens to be Mr. Bush’s choice as this country’s next
ambassador to Japan, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on
March 28 that he and his colleagues believe the United States should spend no
less than $30 billion on various nuclear-safety programs in Russia over the
next eight to 10 years. The math is simple enough, even for the Bush-Cheney
crowd: It’s about four times the amount proposed in their current budget.
By what formula, then, did the administration’s
super-competent foreign-policy honchos derive the planned cutback? Just how
casually do these self-styled realists make decisions that impinge so
profoundly on the nation’s future? And why did they suddenly announce that this
question required further “review”?
Someday they may be asked to justify themselves in
Congressional testimony on this subject. Meanwhile, we can only assume that
they were overcome with zeal to slash expenditures so that Mr. Bush can pass
his $1.6 trillion tax cut, and hoped that nobody would notice a measly $400
million cut from Russian aid.
Not since the early days of the Reagan era-when American
officials talked so foolishly about a “winnable” nuclear war-has the
stewardship of a dangerous world been left in such unsteady hands. Secretary of
State Colin Powell is the only ranking official who displays any comprehension
of these issues, and he has been effectively muzzled. His latest defeat was the
nomination, reportedly despite the Secretary’s objection, of John R. Bolton as
Assistant Secretary of State for arms control. An extremely hawkish Republican
lawyer and former official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, Mr. Bolton
has little background (and less interest) in promoting arms control.
But he does have the heartfelt support of Senator Jesse
Helms, who opened Mr. Bolton’s confirmation hearing by recalling an earlier
exchange of pleasantries with the nominee. “I said at the time, and I meant it,
that John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand in
Armageddon, for what the Bible describes as the final battle between good and
evil in this world. And I meant it then, and I mean it this morning. I have no
qualms about it.”
Isn’t that a reassuring endorsement?