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Bush does his vision thing on arms control

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Something bold, something nuclear: George W. unveils a plan that's got Gore on the defensive

May 30, 2000
Web posted at: 3:00 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT)

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 China-trade bill.

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 reach.

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


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Cover Date: June 5, 2000

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