Posted on December 06, 1999 in Washington Watch

Three events occurred during the past two weeks that we had hoped might give some shape and generate some new foreign policy ideas in the race for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. The first of these events, was George W. Bush’s long-awaited foreign policy address. It was hyped by his campaign as a major address. It was not.

Next came the statements of all six Republican candidates before the Republican Jewish Coalition. We had hoped that given the current sensitive state of the peace process, at least one of the six might have challenged the hard-line pro-Israel positions of the religious right wing and neo-conservatives that have become the dominant themes of the Republican Party. They did not.

Finally, at the end of last week, all six Republican candidates appeared together in a debate in New Hampshire–the state with the first 2000 primary election. Since this was the first time that all six had appeared together–George W. Bush skipped all of the earlier debates–all eyes were on the event to see if it would help to change the dynamic of the contest. It did not.

In the end, the three events were disappointments that added little new information and no further clarity to the Republican contest. The Bush foreign policy address is an example worth noting.

The advance press packet sent out by the Bush campaign gave more emphasis to the Texas Governor’s advisors then it did to the content of his remarks. Accordingly, press coverage of the long awaited speech focused on the Bush foreign policy team.

From an Arab American perspective, the team is not promising. The prominence, of Richard Perle and his group, among the eight Bush advisers, is a matter of concern. Perle was the controversial Assistant Secretary of Defense, who, during the Reagan Administration brought a number of hard-line pro-Israel activists to work in the Pentagon. This group oversaw significant weapons technology transfers from the United States to Israel and permanently reshaped the U.S.-Israel defense partnership.

In 1996, Perle also gained the distinction of advising both the Dole for President Campaign in the United States and the Netanyahu Campaign in Israel. He was the principle author of the paper that advised Netanyahu to end the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians.

The Bush speech, delivered on November 19, 1999, at the Ronald Reagan Library, broke no new ground. It was a call for internationalism: supporting stronger alliances with Europe and Japan; emphasizing trade with India and China; and supporting sanctions against Cuba and Iraq. The 13-page text had only one other sentence on the Middle East noting that he would “defend America’s interests in the Persian Gulf and advance peace in the Middle East, based on a secure Israel.”

The paper differed little from current U.S. foreign policy and seemed directed more as an attack against isolationists within the Republican Party than as a critique of the Clinton Administration. In fact, when queried about where his foreign policy differed from Clinton’s, Bush replied that he would bring integrity and restore public confidence to the presidency.

While it is usually understood that candidates, like officeholders, have speechwriters, the Bush campaign’s overemphasis on their foreign policy team, coupled with the candidates own earlier foreign policy gaffes, made it appear that Bush was reading someone else’s words.

If the purpose of the speech was to create confidence in Bush’s foreign policy competence, it did not work. It was a well-crafted speech and it was well delivered–but the real tests for Bush are still to come.

When Bush and the other five Republican candidates appeared before the Republican Jewish coalition, the result was quite disturbing. Jewish Republicans have grown in numbers and influence in recent years–especially since the Reagan era. As Orthodox Jews have become more politicized, their traditional moral leanings have brought them into the Republican camp. The hard-line pro-Israel politics of the religious right and the neo-conservatives have also encouraged some Likud-leaning American Jews to identify with the GOP.

It became clear from listening to the speeches of the six, that this was not the party of former President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker.

It was former President Bush who framed the current peace process around the theme “land for peace” and noted in his famous March 1991 speech before the U.S. Congress that “geography cannot guarantee security and security does not come from military power alone.” It was disturbing, therefore, to hear his son describe his helicopter ride over the West Bank with Ariel Sharon, whom he described as “a great warrior and hero of freedom and democracy.” That ride, he noted, convinced him how small the territory was and how great a risk to Israel’s security giving up that land would represent.

With the exception of Alan Keyes, the other five all pledged to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem–a few going so far as to say it would be in East Jerusalem. And all criticized what they termed as the Clinton Administration’s pressure on Israel, driven by “photo-op” diplomacy.

The next day, all six appeared in New Hampshire, for their first ever combined appearance. It was, at best, a lackluster event. Because of the way the debate was structured, the candidates did not have the opportunity to interact with one another. Instead of a debate, that might have helped to reveal strengths and weaknesses, the event became a series of six solo appearances. Since no one made any mistakes, the winners were the frontrunners, George W. Bush and Senator John McCain–whose status as leaders were left in tact.


Two other recent events should be highlighted here since they also shed some light on the 2000 foreign policy debate. John McCain used his appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition to deliver a broad ranging foreign policy address; and earlier in the week Democratic candidate Bill Bradley delivered his first major foreign policy comments.

McCain, true to form, delivered a hard-line address. He sharply criticized the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy, much more so than Bush. He took a tough stance on Russia and China and was very tough on the Middle East. Most disturbing was McCain’s rejection of the “land for peace” formula.

It is not land exchanges that guarantee a lasting peace, but the character of the regimes that enter into such agreements. Despotic, corrupt and militant regimes do not make good peace partners…. I will never ask Israel…to sacrifice tangible land in exchange for intangible promises. And I will never ask them to finalize any peace accord until all the provisions of Oslo and subsequent agreements have been met. For too long, the nation of Israel has bargained in good faith, but received little in return.

Bradley, in more low key comments, criticized the Clinton Administration’s handling of Russia, but largely accepted the framework of foreign policy that has been shaped during the Clinton-Gore years. U.S. interests, he noted, are best served by “the free flow of goods, capital and ideas across borders.” And while Bradley affirmed his belief that Israel’s capital should be in Jerusalem, he maintained the Clinton Administration’s position that no action should be taken on that issue until final status agreements are achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.


And so, with less then two months before the first votes are cast in the 2000 races, the races and issues for 2000 are becoming clearer.

Foreign policy is a major concern for U.S. voters. A recent Zogby poll conducted for the Arab American Institute (AAI) shows that voters list foreign policy issues among their top three concerns (alongside education and healthcare). And for the first time, the Middle East peace process shares the stage of voter concern with China, Russia and Latin American policy. The recent speeches of the candidates, while not, for the most part, breaking dramatic new ground, seem to reflect that voter concern. What the AAI poll also shows, however, is that when asked wither the next President should be pro-Israel, Pro-Arab or stake a balance between the two, 78 percent say “balance” is the preferred posture for a U.S. president. Unfortunately, the speeches delivered during the past weeks demonstrate that this message is lost on most of the candidates who seek to lead the United States in 2000.

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