Crackpot ‘Realists’ Show They’re in Charge

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? Crackpot ‘Realists’ Show They’re in Charge