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    Eyes closed, Bush can't see world beyond Texas


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000

    I was in London the other week and every third taxi driver told me a version of this joke about that dubious Vanity Fair article claiming our Republican presidential candidate may have a developmental disorder: "Dyslexic?" says George W. Bush indignantly. "I've never even been to Dyslexia. I'm from Texas."

    The Europeans in general and the British in particular regard George W. as a bit of a dim bulb. They sneer at his malapropisms, snigger over his inability to pronounce "nuclear" or "subliminal" and roll their eyes over his smirky rich-boy retort to the reporter who ambushed him into revealing a spectacular ignorance of world affairs.

    But George W.'s paucity of what Hercule Poirot calls "the little grey cells" is not in and of itself a worry for European leaders. Ronald Reagan was no rocket scientist (he didn't even play one in the movies), but he often seemed to be putty in the sinewy hands of the crafty Margaret Thatcher. An impressionable American president -- brawn to Europe's brains -- is fine.

    What bothers Europeans about George W. is not his breathtaking witlessness but his complete and utter lack of interest in international affairs. Al Gore is perceived as experienced and highly intelligent (he probably knows the names not only of the prime ministers and presidents of UN member nations but the names of their children and their dogs, too), but Europeans don't see him making much noise about issues beyond U.S. borders, either. Neither campaign demonstrates any kind of grip on international affairs -- Elian Gonzalez doesn't count.

    National Public Radio commentator Daniel Schorr recently lamented that he could not recall a presidential election in which foreign policy mattered so little -- and he's 80-odd years old. He cited a survey showing that only 6 percent of Americans wanted to hear more from Bush and Gore about what they'd do if the Balkans flared up again or how they'd deal with Russia over Chechnya or what their attitude to Third World debt relief might be. It's an ugly fact of American life: We simply don't care about the rest of the world. We don't think we have to.

    The people that I talked to in London were (other than taxi drivers) members of what Britons call the "chattering classes," that is: academics, journalists, lawyers and politicians. So maybe they are unnatural in that they read newspapers and generally pay attention to what's going on (though I'd argue the taxi drivers do, too). And even though they had just lived through the "petrol station blockade" when nobody had any gas, and even though the British government was in some disarray, with campaign finance scandals and country-wide anger over fuel taxes, most people wanted to discuss American politics: How would Bush's missile defense system differ from Gore's? Would Gore really enforce the Kyoto agreement on global warming? Does George W. know the polar ice cap is melting? What about the trade war with Europe (Scottish cashmere is about to get a lot more expensive)? What about the candidates' views on the Yugoslav election? Partial Palestinian control of Jerusalem? Beef laced with growth hormones?

    American elections are won on domestic issues: the economy, stupid; Medicare, stupid. It's as if we won the Cold War largely so we could forget about everybody else out there.

    Of course, European elections are won on domestic issues, too. Tony Blair's government has fallen a whopping 20 points in the opinion polls, not because of his conciliatory attitude to Russian president Vladimir Putin, but because he came across as arrogant and out of touch during the petrol crisis -- he was photographed roaring off to an official event in his prime ministerial Jaguar while people queued for gas. When he calls the next election -- probably next May -- Britons will care most about unemployment levels, school improvement, and how much they have to pay for heating oil.

    Yet there in Britain and the rest of Europe, people acknowledge interdependence. Maybe it's because these are small countries that once had large empires: with colonies producing sugar, timber, tea, coffee and minerals, Britain had a global economy and a sense, exploitative though it was, of connection with other nations. Now the empire is gone, but the global world view remains. In America, despite our enthusiastic embrace of the global market, we are hell-bent on denying this. We see ourselves as standing alone, self-sufficient. We are trying to meet the 21st century with 19th century isolationism.

    For American presidential candidates, foreign policy not only bores the citizens, it is dangerous. Say the wrong thing about Israel or Mexico or Cuba in the wrong neighborhood and you lose votes nationwide. Yet surely there are some international goals to articulate. So far, Bush and Gore have managed only a bit of sniping over the missile defense system (which doesn't even work) and the deployment of the military in Kosovo. Asked about press crackdowns in Russia or putting Gen. Pinochet on trial by some Sunday morning pundit, Gore gives thoughtful answers. But it's clear from the way he turns the conversation back to prescription drug benefits that he'd rather not go international: He knows the viewers don't give a damn.

    For his part, Bush relies on advisers from his father's circle, especially the very bright and very right-wing Condoleezza Rice, to "do" international affairs for him. It's clearly not even on his radar screen. Indeed, Texas seems to him to be the only place that counts: When asked by a reporter about legislation in Vermont that allows single-sex couples to contract civil unions, Bush said, "It's not an issue in Texas."

    But the world is not Texas. And sooner or later a President Bush would have to deal with that fact. Bush's brain trust is full of cold warriors from the days when Henry Kissinger ran U.S. foreign policy. They are flat scary. And Gore and his foreign policy advisers are lying low, because they know they can. America is so prosperous and so inward-looking: Other countries are just what Americans beat to win gold medals in the Olympics.

    - Diane Roberts teaches English at the University of Alabama and is a commentator for National Public Radio.

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