Bush does his vision thing on arms control
Something bold, something nuclear: George W. unveils a plan
that's got Gore on the defensive
He still delivers foreign-policy speeches haltingly and looks
like a grad student struggling through his oral exams when he
faces reporters on the subject. But lately George W. Bush has
shown some new smarts, swimming in waters that previously seemed
over his head to counter those impressions. He helped Bill
Clinton turn back a shortsighted Republican move to pull U.S.
troops from Kosovo. It would "tie the President's hand," he
intoned presidentially. And because Bush is not labor's
candidate, he could afford to be more enthusiastic than the
Democratic Veep in lobbying Capitol Hill to pass Clinton's
Turning the tables on Al Gore again last week, Bush surprisingly
opened debate on the tried-and-true rubrics of arms control.
Gore had hoped to own the subject and has criticized Bush's
"cold-war mind-set." But the Texas Governor cast the Vice
President as the real foreign-policy troglodyte by proposing to
upend the dominance of offensive weapons over defenses, long
central to nuclear peace. As President, he said, he would
unilaterally slash U.S. nukes, take the remaining ones off
hair-trigger alert, then "invite" Moscow to follow suit. To keep
the nation safe, he'd build a vast shield to protect the entire
U.S. and its allies against all rogue-state missiles.
The plan--sketchy on details, as Bush likes to be--was
substantively questionable but politically sharp. Gore and his
spokesmen were left to sputter about Bush's "irresponsible"
proposal and how it proved the Governor's inexperience. Indeed,
Bush was fuzzy on how many nukes he'd unilaterally cut,
something congressional Republicans and the Pentagon have always
resisted. His grand missile shield is far larger than what
Clinton proposes and is based mostly on unproven technology that
could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And his list of
campaign promises is adding up to a mountain of new spending,
creating doubts about how he can fund them all.
But in one deft move, the foreign-policy lightweight who failed
a pop quiz on global leaders last fall outflanked Gore from the
right and the left. The plan plays a new riff on Ronald Reagan's
beloved theme of substituting Star Wars for "mutually assured
destruction," erecting magical defenses that would eliminate the
need for so many dangerous warheads. Bush and his advisers
mulled over that concept a year ago in Austin, Texas, then set
it aside for the primaries. The topic popped up again during his
Sunday phone conferences with Condoleezza Rice and other aides.
On May 2, Bush summoned Rice, defense expert Paul Wolfowitz and
campaign-policy director Josh Bolton to his new ranch outside
Waco to nail down a proposal to announce in time to color this
week's U.S.-Russia summit. (Before getting to business, Bush
insisted on grabbing a pickup truck and taking the three on an
off-road tour of his property.)
For the all-important stagecraft, Bush invited the G.O.P.'s high
priests of national security--former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin
Powell, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and
SECretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (who was
skeptical about the idea when Reagan embraced it)--to give his
plan their seal of approval by standing with him. Some aides
wanted a speech, not a press conference, fearing reporters would
try to trip him up on nuclear arcana. But Bush, an aide said
proudly, "answered all the questions himself!" As part of the
effort to appear presidential, he even dispatched aides to give
advance briefings to members of Congress.
Bush's bold approach made the Vice President's support for
Clinton's more cautious cut-and-defend security plan look wimpy.
The President was hoping to neutralize Republican complaints
that he's leaving Americans defenseless against rogue-state
missiles by backing a limited defense beginning with 100
interceptors based in Alaska. His aides share the widespread
doubts that even a small shield is technically feasible. Clinton
wants to jawbone Russia into modifying the treaty outlawing
antiballistic defenses, while Bush vows he'd just scrap it.
Clinton faces tough opposition on two more fronts. This week he
flies to Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin stands firmly
against amending the abm Treaty, even though he would love to
get deeper cuts in strategic missiles. Meanwhile, congressional
Republicans threaten to torpedo any arms agreement Clinton might
That's fine by Bush, who seeks to compensate for his foreign
inexperience by selling himself as an assertive leader. At last
week's press conference, a reporter asked, half seriously, what
Bush was "authorizing" Clinton to negotiate in his final months.
Nothing that would "hamstring" a Bush Administration, he
answered with a smile.
The Bush Proposal
Slash nukes unilaterally; build a missile shield against rogue
states; press Russia to go along
--WHY IT COULD WORK...
Unilateral cuts happen faster than treaties; a shield would
protect the U.S. against rogue states like North Korea and Iran
--...AND HOW IT MIGHT FAIL
The U.S. has no budget or technology yet for a shield. Russia,
China hate the idea and may instead deploy more nukes