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W's Brave Old World

By Sam Parry
April 3, 2001

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd – who made endless fun of Al Gore for his earth-tone sweaters, his Palm Pilot and his connection to the book Love Story – isn't one for making apologies. But she's come close to admitting that her election-year ridicule of Gore might have helped put a dimwitted reactionary in the White House.

“Forgive me, Al Gore,” Dowd wrote in a column on Bush’s drive to turn back the clock on the environment and foreign policy. “I’m going hungry for a shred of modernity.” [NYT, April 1, 2001]

With her second thoughts about making a mockery of Al Gore and his interest in the future, Dowd might not be alone. As George W. Bush and his elders chart a course for the United States back to the black-and-white days of the Cold War and to an era when corporate chieftains knew best, many Americans might be wondering why they voted for this guy.

Did they really want Bush to weaken the protections against arsenic in drinking water or to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency? Did they vote for him to eliminate new ergonomic or repetitive-stress standards in work places?

Did they expect him to talk down the economy to build support for his $1.6 trillion tax cut? Did anyone out there vote for him so he could nominate a former Iran-contra figure – Otto Reich – to head the State Department’s Latin American office?

Did they expect that he would irk close allies on issues from missile defense to global warming? Did voters want him to block negotiations with the North Koreans -- over the protests of the South Koreans -- and to stoke up the tensions with China and Russia?

For someone who lost the national popular vote by more than a half million votes and was handed the Oval Office by five political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush seems oblivious to his fragile claim on legitimacy. Instead, he is acting like a man with radical right-wing mandate.  


In pursuing this agenda, Bush also has shown contempt for voters who supported him believing he was a "compassionate conservative" who would replace Washington's partisanship with cooperation.

Within his first 100 days, Bush has dropped all pretense of governing from the center, effectively calling those who believed he would "suckers." The Wall Street Journal’s ultra-conservative editorial page openly praised Bush for building an administration that is to the right of Ronald Reagan’s.

Bush’s early moves and appointments have made his more extreme right-wing base giddy. Paul Weyrich, a prominent conservative who two years ago wrote a despondent public letter to fellow conservatives in which he stated his view “that politics itself has failed” and that conservatives have “lost the culture war,” is now gushing over Bush’s early decisions.

Weyrich told the Washington Post that Bush’s attention to the right wing has eclipsed Reagan’s and has been “something that I've never experienced before.” [WP, March 25, 2001]

While Bush's right-wing supporters are experiencing a revival of mind and spirit, his political spokesmen are spinning the press away from the notion that Bush snookered the public with his talk of bipartisan moderation. The administration's new line is that conservative appointments and policies should come as no surprise given the fact that Bush is himself a conservative.

During the 2000 race, however, Bush didn’t run as a conservative, but as a likable, affable, moderate whose contradictions drew little attention from the national press. Many political analysts believe that Bush outmaneuvered Gore for the political center as Bush's stump speeches blasted Gore as a big-government liberal, a message that resonated with many voters.

Bush's political strategy worked so well that in spite of Bush's conservative moves as president, polls show many Americans still are expecting him to show his political centrism. Yet, Bush’s rightward march on the environment has irked other prominent Republicans.

As reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s granddaughter, Edith Williams, is “fighting mad … about what Bush is doing to the environment and to the environmental legacy of the Republican Party.” Williams told columnist Joel Connelly, “I'm desperately disappointed. ... I am deeply distressed at this administration.” [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 28, 2001]

In the first two months of the Bush administration, two prominent moderate Republican administration officials, Secretary of State Colin Powell and EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, have stood by loyally as their boss undercut their public positions to please his right wing-base. Powell was embarrassed on Iraq and North Korea. Whitman had the rug pulled out from under her on carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.

The fact that Powell and Whitman are among the most popular figures in the administration didn’t matter. The fact that campaign promises were broken didn’t matter. Bush’s commitment to pleasing his right-wing base was paramount.

The World's View

The American people may be giving Bush the benefit of the doubt, but the international community has not been as patient.

Bush’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions earned rapid and near-universal condemnation from even close U.S. allies. While none of these countries have ratified the Kyoto treaty themselves, they hold the view that working within the Kyoto framework remains the best way to address the global-warming problem.

Bush's unilateral move to drop out of Kyoto is viewed as an early signal to the world that the new administration plans to embrace national-interest-unilateralism rather than the Clinton administration’s more global-multilateral approach.

At a press conference on March 29, President Bush explained his priorities: “I will not accept a plan that will harm our economy and hurt American workers. First thing’s first are the people who live in America. That’s my priority. And I’m worried about the economy. I’m worried about the lack of an energy policy. I’m worried about rolling blackouts in California.”

In withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration criticized the treaty for sparing “developing nations” from many of the environmental requirements and thus putting the United States at an economic disadvantage.

Yet, the Kyoto construct recognized two basic facts: First, the developed world and especially the United States account for the bulk of the greenhouse emissions. Second, the people of the developing world face far worse economic hardships.

The Bush administration’s example of putting the comfort of Americans and their SUV lifestyle first could delay solutions to global warming until it’s too late to avert drastic, even catastrophic, climate changes.

At the same time, even as Bush is expressing concerns about the current “energy crisis,” his budget would slash funding for renewable and clean-energy technologies as well as efforts to promote fuel efficiency.

On ABC's "This Week" this past Sunday, Sam Donaldson pressed the Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham on this point: “Mr. Secretary, you've talked about conservation, but the president's budget framework envisions cutting funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs by 30 percent. What's that about?”

Abraham did not deny Donaldson's claim. The energy secretary replied only that the administration was reevaluating “how we spend our energy dollars so that we can give the taxpayer a better return on his investment.”

In other words, while the United States is embroiled in an “energy crisis” and has angered close allies by dumping the Kyoto treaty, the Bush administration sees limited value in promoting new energy technologies that, in the long run, could deliver clean energy and greater energy independence.

So, instead of having Al Gore promoting a New Economy that would push the frontiers on fuel-efficient cars and pioneer advanced technologies for renewable energy resources, the American people have George W. Bush, nostalgic for the Old Economy and its dependence on fossil fuels drilled in protected lands and ripped from the hills of coal country.

Old v. New

While many Americans are alarmed at Bush's environmental and domestic policies, others worry about Bush's posturing about Russia and China, a belligerence that harkens back to the Cold War.

The administration’s expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy case illustrates the point. According to The Observer of London, Russian experts feared that tit-for-tat expulsions could threaten U.S. efforts to secure Russia's nuclear arsenal and to combat organized crime.

Further irritating the relationship, according to The Observer, was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments describing “Russia as a ‘nation of proliferators,’ and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz’s that ‘these people will do anything for money.’” The Observer pointed out that in fact “miraculously few ‘loose nukes’ have found illegal passage out of Russia.”  [The Observer, March 25, 2001]

The Bush team also has heightened tensions with China. The administration’s commitment to sell arms to Taiwan, including the likely approval of navy ships equipped with the advanced Aegis missile radar system, has been denounced by Beijing.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin urged the U.S. not to press forward with the weapon sales to Taiwan, warning in an interview with the Washington Post, “The more weapons you sell, the more we will prepare ourselves in terms of national defense.” [WP, March 24, 2001]

Amid the escalation of Cold War rhetoric, Beijing and Washington suddenly found themselves at odds over a downed U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft that landed on a Chinese island. The mutual distrust rapidly escalated the situation into what bordered on a confrontation.

The tough-guy talk might please Bush’s right-wing base eager for a return to the belligerence of the Reagan era, but the discord carries risks in a complex and mutually dependent world that has changed dramatically from the White House days of Bush's father.

The Rush Limbaugh view of the Clinton years as a soft time when major U.S. national security secrets were compromised also doesn't square with the facts. The record actually shows that the most dangerous national security breaches occurred on the watches of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The alleged Chinese theft of secrets for building the miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead occurred during the mid-1980s as the Reagan administration secretly cozied up to the Chinese communists, in part, to win their help in arming Nicaragua's contra rebels, one of Reagan's pet projects.

While the Chinese apparently were making off with U.S. nuclear secrets, the Russians had penetrated U.S. counterintelligence operations. The cases of CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen both date back to the mid-1980s and went undetected during the Reagan-Bush era.

Ironically, the time of the toughest talk was the time of dangerously lax controls over truly sensitive secrets. Still, the new posturing against Russia and China suggests that George W. Bush's administration – staffed with retreads of the Reagan era – is more comfortable with us-against-them name-calling, even when that toughness looks like an international version of the old Texas saying, “All hat and no cattle.”

In any event, in less than 100 days, George W. Bush's administration has managed to pump up the Cold War pressures once again.

While pleasing his right-wing base, Bush's early actions on both domestic and foreign policies have belied his campaign pledge that he is a “uniter, not a divider” – at least as he meant it.

If the early trend continues, George W. Bush might be setting new records for dividing the American people over a wide range of domestic policies. But Bush also seems to be fast uniting much of the rest of the world – against the United States.

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