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Competence—Dukakis Had the Right Idea
Tim Francis-Wright

Ever since the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September, Democratic leaders have muted and restrained their criticism of President Bush. Most criticism of his policies comes with an obligatory paean to his supposedly masterly prosecution of the War on Terror. However, the last few months do not disprove but rather support the notion that the Bush administration has been fundamentally incompetent in foreign policy. It is high time for Democrats to roll out the C-word: competence.

At the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Michael Dukakis famously declared that the upcoming presidential election would be about "competence, not ideology." Dukakis was wrong to ignore the importance of ideology to many voters: the ideological differences between Dukakis and Bush the elder, or between most Democratic and Republican presidential candidates can be quite stark. For example, the Democratic and Republican parties have entirely different ideas about helping rich and poor citizens; about protecting the environment; about helping corporations or helping consumers.

Dukakis was certainly right, however, to stress the importance of competence. Sometimes the incompetence of one's opponent is so great that competence can sway voters who would normally be indifferent or even hostile. In 1988, the future competency of the original Bush administration was unknown. But in 2002, the Bush administration is real and observable. Democrats can and should focus on the utter incompetence of George Bush the younger and his administration. Even if one ignores the right-wing ideology of the Bush administration, its performance in international affairs has stunk.

The War on Terror

The high standing that George Bush currently enjoys in opinion polls owes everything to his actions and decisions in the aftermath of the attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September. Hawks and doves alike backed efforts to find those ultimately responsible for the hijackings and bombings, and also realized the need to involve the American military. What brought almost universal agreement was the idea that the United States would find Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. But since that fateful day, the administration has made three deeply stupid decisions.

First, Bush and his military commanders forgot the ultimate goal of the military actions in Afghanistan. Several recent press accounts relate that American forces let Osama bin laden slip away during the battles in the Tora Bora region. Failing to catch bin Laden means that the mastermind of the attacks cannot stand trial for his actions. It means that the leader of an international terrorist group may be at large. And it means that, fundamentally, the whole operation in Afghanistan has been a failure.

Second, the Bush administration has consistently pursued an inane policy with regards to the Al-Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Those prisoners could have been prisoners of war, subject to the rights, privileges, and restrictions of the Geneva Convention. Alternatively, the Bush administration could have treated them as criminals and brought them into the criminal justice system. Instead, the administration has argued that the Al-Qaeda prisoners are in a mysterious legal purgatory in which neither the traditional rights afforded to criminal suspects nor the generally more limited rights afforded to prisoners of war apply.

The Geneva Convention applies to military hostilities, regardless of the existence of a declaration of war. During the Vietnam conflict, for example, the United States followed the Geneva Conventions in both letter and spirit. Its humane treatment of North Vietnamese prisoners, especially in contrast to the horrible reciprocal treatment of American prisoners, was its best propaganda weapon against the Vietcong. The Bush administration, however, decided that the legal no-man's land was preferable to a successful international agreement with fifty years of success to its credit.

Accordingly, the Al-Qaeda prisoners are held in makeshift outdoor cells at the Guantanamo Bay base, with bright lights shining on them all day and all night. Regulations governing the military tribunals that the prisoners might face give broad powers to the President to decide who faces a tribunal, or even which guilty prisoners face a death penalty.

Third, sound bites have replaced sound policy with respect to Al-Qaeda and international terrorism. The President famously declared that other countries were either "with us or against us." He promised to treat harshly the "rogue states" that "that harbor, finance, train or equip the agents of terror." He claimed that North Korea, Iraq, and Iran formed an "axis of evil" bent on destruction. He has filed to explain how Iraq and Iran patched over their myriad differences and palpable discord. He has not explained how North Korea was closely aligned with any country, never mind any country in the Middle East.

Seeking to root out terrorists is not absurd per se, but a purely Manichean view of the world is absurd. Fifteen of the 11 September hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and Saudis provided the financial backing for the Taliban. The Pakistani military provided aid, comfort, training, and weapons to the Taliban during and after the civil war in Afghanistan. All of the 11 September hijackers spent time in the United States in the days before the hijackings. All three of these countries certainly aided the terrorists in some way or another.

History also highlights the absurdity of these positions. If the British, for example, at any time since 1921, followed through on similar rhetoric against the funders of the Irish Republican Army, how many bombings of Boston and New York would the United States stand before all- out war started? How can it be right, for example, to equate an imaginary axis (North Korea, Iran, and Iraq) against what really was an exil Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan)?

The bellicose talk of the Bush administration really serves to put under the rubric of fighting terrorism other, several of its other goals. Many key members of the administration want to remove Saddam Hussein of Iraq by force, and view the War of Terror as the means to that end. Starting a war against Iraq should be justified only on its own terms, not by conflating it with our response to the unrelated actions on 11 September.

International Relations

George W. Bush entered office in 2001 with what conventional wisdom declared to be an all- star cast of national security advisors. Vice President Dick Cheney was a former Secretary of Defense under George Bush the elder. Secretary of State Colin Powell was a decorated general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a former White House chief of staff who had served as Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford. National Security advisor Condoleeza Rice was a noted academic whose works were required reading in international security programs well before she served in either Bush administration. Clearly, the professionals had taken over from the amateurs of the Clinton adminsitration.

The professionals, however, should make one long for amateur hour. In an era in which terrorist threats have made international cooperation paramount, the Bush professionals have missed few opportunities to scoff at all sorts of international agreements. The administration has declared not only its hostility towards arms control agreements, but has decided to opt out of the ABM Treaty, the agreement that allowed the United States and Soviet Union to slow, then reverse, the nuclear arms race. George W. Bush threatens to be the first president since Harry Truman not to sign an agreement limiting nuclear arms in some manner.

To make matters worse, the ABM Treaty is hardly an anomaly. The current administration has walked out of talks to implement the Kyoto protocol on climate change. It has refused to endorse an international criminal court or an agreement to ban land mines. It cared so little about a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission that France, Austria, and Sweden had little problem beating out the United States for the three seats allocated to Europe and North America.

Bush and his administration talk of acting to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But the two most recent proliferators of nuclear weapons—India and Pakistan— are now allied with the United States, thanks to the need for military support near Afghanistan. The Bush administration reversed the Clinton administration's sanctions against those countries for testing nuclear weapons. In the 1980s, when China helped Pakistan build (but not test) its first weapons, Presidents Reagan and Bush the elder ignored Pakistan's incipient nuclear program. As soon as the Soviet Union left Afghanistan—and there was no need to funnel cash to Islamic guerrilla groups through Pakistan any more—Bush the elder finally admitted that Pakistan was effectively a nuclear weapons states and imposed sanctions.

The message that American actions sent both in the 1980s and now is that our moral stance about preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction is simply fraudulent. Weapons of mass destruction merit our opprobrium when our adversaries acquire them, but not when our friends, even our transitory ones, do so.

If the Bush administration could successfully prosecute a coherent foreign policy, then its predilection towards unilateral action would be of merely academic interest. But the administration is so overwhelmed by its actions in Afghanistan that it has not—and perhaps cannot—handle another crisis at the same time.

Israel and Palestine

The administration has been both incoherent and impotent with regards to Israel and Palestine. At moments, its official statements have been measured and insightful. For the most part, however, it has vacillated between whole-hearted support for Israel and half-hearted criticism of Ariel Sharon's government.

In November, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the Bush administration officially supported a Paleastinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The new policy represented a positive change in American policy. No American government since the founding of the modern state of Israel had supported any full-fledged Palestinian homeland. Any hope for a truly progressive policy on Palestine, however, evaporated when the Bush could not bring himself to criticize the Israeli occupation in anything but the most meaningless of terms.

All month, the Bush administration has been careful not to give Ariel Sharon a green light to act against the Palestinian Authority. Instead, it has shown a flashing yellow: proceed with a modicum of caution. Bush called for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops on 4 April, shortly after the first Israeli military action, and later warned Sharon that withdrawal had to begin "without delay." But those words had no actions behind them. While Bush spoke sternly to Sharon, the Israeli army proceeded to demolish several of the 92 acres of the Jenin refugee camp, standing since 1953, into rubble. Sharon rebuked Bush by telling the press that any Israeli withdrawal would have to wait until the military's job was finished. As the Israeli army kept outside observers out of Jenin—from Red Crescent ambulances to United Nations observers—the Bush administration was still obsessed with blaming Yassir Arafat for not renouncing violence.

To foster negotiations between Arafat and Sharon, Bush sent Colin Powell to the Middle East. Unfortunately, he sent Powell on a week-long excursion to Tel Aviv and Ramallah via Spain and Morocco. And at home, Bush discounted the worth of negotiations, telling a British television interviewer that previous summits in the Middle East had failed to bring peace. Earlier in the year, his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, had blamed Bill Clinton for the current Palestinian uprising: Clinton had tried too hard for peace, and the intefada was the consequence. If the United States is going to go to the trouble, expense, and bother of being a superpower, with a close and important ally in the Middle East, there should be times whenn it is unafraid to criticize those allies.

Even when the Bush administration does something halfway decent with regard to the Middle East, it can't get a clear message across. At a highly publicized rally for Israeli in Washington, the crowd booed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz when he had the temerity to note that "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well." Wolfowitz made that observation in the middle of a decidedly pro-Israeli speech, but it is disheartening that the political climate in the United States is so warped that simple acknowledgement of innocent deaths on both sides of a conflict is met with derision.

The Bush administration favors a separate Palestinian state, but it has shown neither the ability nor the desire to allow its formation. Israel and Palestine have two paths to peace. The first, a secular state encompassing both Israel and Palestine, is wonderful in theory but perhaps even impossible in practice. The second, parallel Israeli and Palestinian states, is certainly possible. It does not require Israel and Palestine to be allies or even friends. It does require them to stop the suicide bombings, the intefada, the occupations, and the military incursions. Within five years after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt and Israel signed an historic peace agreement at Camp David, with the vital help of the Carter administration. The peace has held, even though Egypt often criticizes Israeli policies in harsh and unyielding terms. The American aid to both countries, billions of dollars each year, ensures that the two countries have even a vested economic interest in peace.

Peace in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cannot come until Israel gives up the notion that it can make those territories into colonies. Jewish settlements are so pervasive in the West Bank that the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority lack any sense of contiguity. For Palestine to become a true nation, it has to have when any other nation takes for granted: control of its own land. Getting there will require more than occasional attention from the United States, Israel's staunchest ally.


The administration's reluctance to act in the Middle East lies in marked contrast to its eagerness to act in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, who won democratic elections there in 1998 and 2000, was ousted for a day by a group of military and business leaders. When the plotters suspended the Venezuelan constitution, and dissolved the national assembly and supreme court, the military rebelled and restored Chavez to power.

Through these chaotic events, the governments who cried "foul" included Mexico, Peru, and Argentina, all countries only recently associated with multiparty democracies. The United States, the oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere, did nothing of the sort. Instead, the official pronouncements of the Bush administration included claims that there was no coup, just a resignation; and that Chavez was illegitimately in power, despite his electoral majorities.

It turns out that officials in the Bush administration had taken very deep personal interests in the affairs of Venezuela. Several of the plotters had met several weeks beforehand with Otto Reich, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Reich spoke during the interregnum with Pedro Carmona, the pretender to the Venezuelan presidency.

Democrats should pay particular attention to the role of Otto Reich in this whole sordid mess. As an aide to Oliver North during the Reagan administration, he helped the United States interfere in the Nicaraguan civil war, even after Congress had banned any such actions. When Bush nominated him to his current position, Democratic senators refused to confirm him, so Bush temporarily appointed him during the congressional recess in January. Reich is not the only Bush official with ties to both operations in Nicaragua in the Reagan years and to Venezuela this year. Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, a Defense Department official responsible for Latin America, spent much of the 1980s as a spokesman in Washington for the Nicaraguan contras.

The United States certainly should take interest in Venezuelan affairs. The country is a major exporter of oil to the United States, and a major gasoline retailer, CITGO, is wholly owned by Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. , the national oil company of Venezuela. But Bush and his administration have tried to control the Venezuelan government. Our government has acted covertly, by prodding and comforting the plotters. It has acted overtly, budgeting funds to "promote democracy" in Venezuela, including putting agents there. The Times of London has even reported that at least one of the plotters is now ensconced in Miami.

Bush and his administration have vilified countries like Iraq for being enemies of democracy. Yet, in the case of Venezuela, his administration has taken pains to subvert a democratic government, to shelter at least of those who tried to overthrow it, and to deny its obvious collusion in the plot. Only two years ago, the government of the United States could claim that it was the chief defender of democracy in Latin America. Now, that claim is demonstrably false. Mexico, which has only a few years of truly democratic elections, was the chief critic of the coup in Caracas. Even the Venezuelan military, which ultimately restored Chavez to power, acted with stronger moral fiber than our vaunted foreign policy experts in Washington.

Americans deserve a government that can justify its use of force with more than slogans. They deserve a government that cares enough about peace to mediate disputes. They deserve a government that backs up its stated support for democracy with actions. So far, the Bush administration falls far short of these goals. The Democratic party should take notice in this year and in 2004.

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