Foreign Policy Minefield Dictates Starting Slowly


Jan 8, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on January 8, 2001.

President-elect George W. Bush has now unveiled his core national security team, a high-powered group with a record of strong views and a desire to get going. Viewed from experience, however, there are two words of advice at the start of the new administration: "Go slow."

The last half-century is littered with foreign policy mistakes made by new administrations in their earliest days: John Kennedy's Bay of Pigs; Richard Nixon's missteps on Vietnam; Jimmy Carter's policies on human rights and energy; Ronald Reagan's high rhetorical posture on terrorism; and Bill Clinton's acceptance of the "midnight intervention" in Somalia from outgoing President George Bush. On reflection, more seasoned presidents--and their national security teams--might like to have revisited each of these early actions.

The risks for the new president are obvious. On Inauguration Day, Bush will have in place only one top foreign policy aide other than Vice President Dick Cheney: new National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, whose job is not subject to Senate confirmation.

Even if the Senate follows tradition and immediately confirms Colin Powell (secretary of State) and Donald H. Rumsfeld (Defense secretary), the lower-level positions where much of the work gets done can't be filled for weeks--or longer. And even then, these people must learn how to work together and with the president--a chemistry that cannot be developed, or even accurately predicted, in advance.

Further, every "out party" becomes the "in party," bringing with it at least some misconceptions about what is necessary and possible in U.S. foreign policy--and those misconceptions take some time to overcome. The new "ins" tend to try following through on positions taken during the election campaign, whether or not they match with reality. And the newcomers, however much experience they may have, can't begin to get the feel for how the world and America's place in it really work until they have the responsibility for reacting to day-to-day events. Especially since the end of the Cold War, which at least had some clear and enduring rules, the picture of power, purpose and possibility that confronts the new team will of necessity be significantly different from what they experienced before. And "before" can be a long time in terms of changes in the world: 12 years for the Democrats leading up to 1993; eight years for the Republicans now.

Two areas illustrate the virtue of "go slow": Our European allies, who regret the departure of every U.S. president--to whose policies and peculiarities they have become accustomed--look to the new administration for continuity and steadiness. They also devise tests for American leadership and are unforgiving in applying them. Fairly or not, this time they will judge the new Bush administration by how it deals with an issue that came up in the election campaign: whether U.S. troops will remain part of the NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. Revisiting long-term NATO policy in the Balkans is fair game; but starting off by sowing uncertainty about whether the U.S. will continue to share military risks with allies would cause problems far out of proportion to the intrinsic importance of the matter.

The Europeans also want to know whether Bush will try to reverse last year's rejection by the Republican-led Senate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. They also will watch to see how he deals with what, for Bush, must have been an unwelcome after-Christmas gift from departing President Clinton: the U.S. signature on the treaty creating an International Criminal Court.

Of more consequence in trying to keep the first few months of foreign policy as "error free" as possible is national missile defense. Bush and his team have reiterated that this will have high priority, but it remains a policy minefield. How this issue develops will have a critical impact on relations with Russia and China, the shape of the strategic nuclear environment, risks from weapons of mass destruction, the future of arms control and--again--European allies' views of the new administration's competence.

Furthermore, although the concept of national missile defense has been formally backed by Clinton and Al Gore as well as by Bush, there has been no agreement by the two major parties on what form it should take. And parts of the U.S. military are ambivalent, as they foresee moneys being drained from favorite arms programs.

Last year, a bipartisan panel of former (and some future) government officials, convened by the Rand Corp., differed widely--and vigorously--on what to do about missile defenses. But they had one common piece of advice for the new president: "Mismanaging this issue could have severe consequences across a wide range of concerns. Promptly after inauguration, you should mandate a comprehensive review of all critical factors."

That says "go slow." And however high President Bush puts foreign policy and national security on his leadership agenda, this is good advice, coming from people who have "been there"--and sometimes suffered--before.

Robert E. Hunter is a senior advisor at the RAND Corp.

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