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Bush, Gore differ on U.S. military's role abroad


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000

WASHINGTON -- After last week's debate between Al Gore and George Bush, some commentators thought they had expressed similar views on the question of when the United States should rely on military intervention to settle foreign disputes. Other analysts said the two presidential candidates had sharply disagreed on this issue.

Yes, they were watching the same debate.

There is an explanation for these conflicting commentaries, which I think is every bit as interesting as the central debate about the role of the U.S. military in today's world.

Those who see Bush and Gore expressing a similar point of view understand that there is a very wide range of opinion on this topic. On the far right are the Pat Buchanan isolationists; on the far left are the traditional anti-war liberal Democrats.

When the views of Gore and Bush are measured against these two extremes, it's hard to see any difference. Neither Bush nor Gore would be reluctant to send American soldiers into any trouble spot where U.S. interests are clearly at stake.

For that reason, they agreed under questioning by debate moderator Jim Lehrer that the United States did the right thing when it intervened militarily in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo. Likewise, they agreed that because the U.S. had no strategic interests in Rwanda, the U.S. was justified in declining to get involved in the massacre there. And they agreed that troops should not have been sent to Somalia, even though Gore supported it at the time.

The only historical examples on which Bush and Gore disagreed were the dispatching of U.S. troops to Haiti and Lebanon. Democrats and Republicans have long been at odds on these two initiatives. The Clinton administration put troops in Haiti over GOP objections; President Ronald Reagan committed troops to Lebanon despite complaints from Democrats, who then said "I told you so" when more than 200 Marines were killed there.

Bush and Gore may not be far apart on the question of U.S. military intervention around the globe, but there is a discernable distinction between their positions on this issue. That difference is worth exploring.

Bush contends that he, unlike Gore, would never commit U.S. troops for what he calls "nation building," and by that he means he would not use the military simply to bolster a teetering government or shore up an ineffective police force.

"I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war," Bush declared. "I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow a dictator when it's in our best interests."

Gore rejects "nation building" as a pejorative term when used by Bush, but he admits that he would be more willing to commit U.S. troops in places where the objective is not strictly military.

"The way I see it," Gore said, "the world's getting much closer together. Like it or not ... the United States is now the natural leader of the world. All these countries are looking to us. Now, just because we cannot be involved everywhere, and shouldn't (be), doesn't mean that we should shy away from going in anywhere."

Gore is an advocate of the doctrine of "forward engagement," which he defines as deploying the U.S. military around the globe to help prevent conflict before it starts. Bush contends this energetic approach has stretched U.S. military forces too thin.

Although Bush insists he is an opponent of forward engagement, defense experts note that his running mate, Dick Cheney, was an advocate of that doctrine when he served as defense secretary under Bush's father. In a 1992 report to Congress, Cheney said U.S. troops would maintain stability around the world by engaging in "peacekeeping, disaster relief, nation-building assistance (and) humanitarian assistance." Now, however, Cheney says the U.S. military is "overextended and under-resourced."

Cynics believe Bush has taken a position against forward engagement primarily to please the Republican isolationists in Congress. These cynics believe that Bush, if elected, would adopt a policy similar to that of his father.

One of those cynics is William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Despite his solid conservative Republican credentials, Kristol is closer to Gore on this issue than he is to Bush. In fact, Kristol is more of an interventionist than either Bush or Gore.

Kristol says Bush and Cheney "have sounded more like the congressional Republicans of the last few years than I would have wished." But he insists he is not convinced by their rhetoric. "Do I believe at the end of the day they would do the right thing in power?" he asks. "Yes, I do."

Gore's position, likewise, helps him bridge differences within his party. You must remember that Gore sided with Republicans in favor of the Persian Gulf War, while many liberal Democrats voted against it. Forward engagement appeals to liberals as well as moderates.

The problem with Gore's position, defense experts say, is that it could require a much more substantial increase in military spending than the Democratic presidential candidate has proposed.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of dry, theoretical discussion that puts many voters to sleep. If you find yourself tuning out when this subject comes up, let me leave you with this reminder: What they are talking about is whether to send your son or daughter, your grandson or granddaughter into a situation in which they may sacrifice their lives.

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