For George W., Father Didn't Always Know Best

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When it comes to foreign policy, one day George W. is his own man; the next day he's most emphatically his father's son. As the Republican nominee — famously stung last year by his failure during an interview to name the heads of state of three out of four foreign trouble spots — moves to burnish his foreign policy credentials, his father's legacy offers both assets and liabilities. Candidate Bush may have preferred a different last name Monday when he courted the pro-Israel vote in an address to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in which he slammed the Clinton administration for daring to put pressure on Israel by imposing deadlines in the peace process and for not moving Washington's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The irony, not lost on AIPAC officials, is that President Bush consistently took harsher positions on Israel than the Clinton administration has, even threatening to halt U.S. aid in order to stop Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — a form of leverage as unthinkable during Clinton's tenure as moving the embassy would have been on President Bush's watch. (Of course President Bush was substantially driven by a concern, less important to the Clinton administration, to maintain the support of moderate Arab regimes in the showdown with Iraq.)

But a day after distancing himself from his father's Mideast legacy, George W. cloaked himself in the mantle of continuity while unveiling his foreign policy centerpiece — a distinctly Reaganesque missile defense strategy. Standing behind the candidate during a media conference at the Washington Press Club was a chorus line of foreign policy players from administrations past, including President Bush's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; his Russia expert Condoleeza Rice (who now serves as chief foreign policy adviser to Bush the younger); and his Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Colin Powell, as well as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. The message in the photo opportunity was unmistakable: I may not be able to name the president of Chechnya or the prime minister of India, but I have some of the best brains in foreign policy on tap. It did seem a little counterintuitive, though, to be lambasting Vice President Gore for "Cold War thinking" while rubbing shoulders with some of its most accomplished architects and repackaging President Reagan's missile defense policy. Then again, Reagan national security adviser Robert McFarlane long ago acknowledged that rather than seriously contemplating a viable defense system, his administration's missile defense policy was an elaborate sting operation to spook the Russians. Candidate Bush, however, may limit himself to spooking the electorate.