TCS Daily

China Clears Way for 20-20 Foresight in Foreign Policy

By Ken Adelman - April 9, 2001 12:00 AM

The China standoff tells us a lot we already knew about Chinese decisionmakers, and a lot we didn't yet know about American decisionmakers.

That the Chinese are arrogant, stubborn, xenophobic, and let emotional reactions override cool self-interest has been reinforced over the past week. That the Chinese will be trouble for U.S. interests -- not globally, but regionally in Asia - is unmistakable now.

"Neither war nor peace" was Trotsky's approach for the nascent Soviet Union. "Neither friend nor foe" will be the hard-headed American approach for the emerging China now.

Luckily, the new American team is hard-headed. The Nixon-Kissinger, and later the Bush-Scowcroft, duos viewed China sentimentally -- even after the Tiananmen Square mow-down of 1989. Likewise, the Clinton-Strobe Talbott team viewed Russia sentimentally -- even after Moscow stirred up trouble in Iraq, Iran, Chechnya, and especially in its neighboring states.

No such sentimentality blinds the Bush Administration, which looks at the world in a clear, realistic manner.

Besides realism, the Bush foreign-policy team has a welcome frankness to it.

Most Administrations, especially early on, avoid blunt words or actions. When saddled with bad leftovers -- like the Kyoto accord, myriad midnight regulations, trade tugs, and ABM Treaty soft-shoe shuffles -- the temptation for policymakers is to blur differences while clearing their throats for a few months.

Not these guys. They step up, bluntly say what's no good, and move on. That's not only refreshing; it's a far better way to manage national security -- where clarity is courage.

Such directness better positions the U.S. in dealings with adversaries.

Who knows if Saddam Hussein would have been deterred from invading Kuwait if the U.S. ambassador, and entire Bush team, in 1990 - had been clear before the fact that such an invasion "will not stand"? Who knows if Leonid Brezhnev would have been deterred from invading Afghanistan had the Carter team in 1979 been clear before the fact about our strong reaction?

Noone knows, but I suspect the wishy-washy messages they sent emboldened these acts of aggression. Why not pick off a country if it's no big deal to the major superpower?

Besides warning enemies, clarity from Washington helps friends. All foreign leaders today must calibrate their own policies to America's approach. That's what living with a superpower entails.

Clarity makes that easier. Just this week, I met the top leader of a friendly Middle East country. In our private talk, which centered on Iraq, he explained that over the past year of the Clinton Administration, he welcomed three presidential envoys in his capital. One explained that the President was determined to overthrow Saddam, another that the sanctions against Iraq would remain tight, and the third that the U.S. would prove more conciliatory to Iraq.

"What," he asked me, "was I supposed to make of all this?" Above all, he was worried about getting out on a limb on Iraq policy only to find the U.S. leaving him there - exposed and terribly vulnerable.

Given what I've seen, I assured him that no such thing can happen with those now in Washington.

Another aspect of the current Administration is competent engagement. George W. Bush hardly mentioned foreign policy and national security during the presidential campaign. When he did, it was unimpressive. He seemed awfully unsure of himself and generally uninterested.

Yet he assembled the most competent foreign policy team ever, with Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Rich Armitage handling normal issues with a sure hand, and this mini-crisis with China with cool aplomb.

Moreover, the President himself is surprisingly engaged. Last week when a key official from India came to call on National Security Advisor Rice, the President sauntered down the hall to sit in for a minute, and then invited them into the Oval Office. There for 45 more minutes, unscheduled and in private -- with no subsequent announcement to the press -- the President discussed U.S. relations with India. While that's important, it was hardly urgent for him to do in an awfully busy week.

In a nutshell, so far, so good. Very good.


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