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Jewish World Review July 25, 2000 /22 Tamuz, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Foreign, Defense Policy Deserves Full 2000 Debate -- CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS say they might not pay for Middle East peace. Democrats oppose free trade agreements. President Clinton bombed Serbia, but wouldn't stop genocide in Rwanda. The GOP presidential candidate says he wouldn't stop genocide, either, but wants to build a $100 billion missile shield over the United States.

What does all this add up to? It doesn't add up at all as a coherent foreign policy for the world's only superpower. And it surely cries out for a robust foreign policy debate in the first presidential election of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, that isn't likely to happen --as evidenced by the fact that Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) were asked only two minutes worth of questions about foreign issues during hourlong television interviews Sunday.

Half of those questions were about missile defense, a worthy topic, but left a world of subjects uncovered, including how much of future budget surpluses should be devoted to defense and foreign aid and where it's appropriate to send U.S. forces.

There are a few people -- besides ultra-isolationist Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan -- who are trying valiantly to trigger the needed debate.

One of them is Gen. James Jones, commandant of the Marine Corps, who is warning that a country that spends only 2.9 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, as America now does, is bound to lose influence in the world.

Two others are Sens. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who have launched a series of Senate discussions aimed at fashioning a bipartisan U.S. foreign and military strategy, which they think the United States doesn't have now.

In Congressional testimony, speeches and interviews, Jones has been saying that past defense investments -- averaging 8 percent of the nation's GDP over the past 60 years and 6 percent during the Cold War -- established the "security umbrella" under which U.S. values, commerce and political interests have prospered.

"But," Jones told me in an interview, "we can't kid ourselves that we can always do more with less, that we can be less modern than we need to be forever and that because things are OK today they will be OK forever."

He said that at the current rates of spending, the military services can't adequately replace aging aircraft and ships, retain top-quality personnel and maintain a presence in crucial areas of the world.

"Vacuums will be created and people will move in who don't wish us well," said Jones. "That's just the nature of the world."

Jones said he isn't sure who this country's next "peer rival" will be -- possibly China, possibly Russia -- but he is sure there will be one or more eventually.

The United States also faces threats from terrorist groups and smaller hostile countries, he said, which someday may be able to detonate a weapon of mass destruction inside the United States. "That's my 21st century Pearl Harbor nightmare," he said.

Jones quotes favorably an estimate from former Democratic Defense Secretary Harold Brown that the United States ought to be spending 1 to 1.5 percent more of GDP on defense than it is. That means $100 billion to $150 billion a year more than the current $300 billion budget.

So much money -- or the need for it -- is practically nowhere in public discussion, except as the potential cost of the "robust" anti-missile shield that Bush favors.

Cleland told me he's afraid that missile defense -- what he calls "the Maginot Line in the sky" -- will dominate what foreign policy and defense discussion occurs this year, obscuring "the mismatch between our commitments and our resources."

"We've downsized our forces by one-third over the past decade," Cleland said, "but we've increased overseas deployments by more than 300 percent. It can't go on. That's what the real debate ought to be about."

On the Senate floor in April, in one of his colloquies with Roberts, Cleland brought up some other subjects: Congressional Republicans' refusal to ratify arms treaties and slowness in paying United Nations dues, Democratic opposition to trade agreements and the administration's "humanitarian interventions in violation of national sovereignty."

"The sum total of our actions has been far more unilateral than any of us would have intended," Cleland said. "This is relatively incoherent," though other nations think it's "organized" and are offended by it.

"We have to get back to some basic understanding of who we are and what we are doing in the world," he added.

Both of the presidential candidates have made speeches on foreign and defense policy. Bush leaves the impression that he wants to spend more on defense, but would be cautious about committing U.S. forces overseas.

Gore apparently would maintain the Clinton policy of humanitarian interventions, increase foreign aid and stick with current defense spending levels, which Congress and the administration lately have increased.

But, America's role in the world is too important to be voted on impressionistically. The candidates need to be grilled on it and they need to grill each other.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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