How Jim Jeffords Changed the World

  • Share
  • Read Later
A butterfly flaps its wings and causes an earthquake on the other side of the world… Judging by the way the geopolitical landscape is changing as a result of his defection from the GOP, Vermont Senator James Jeffords could be forgiven for feeling a little like chaos theory's oft-cited chrysalis. After all, relations between the U.S. and its allies — never minds its strategic competitors — had sunk to their lowest point in recent memory as the Bush administration rode roughshod over the concerns of its allies on everything from missile defense and China policy to climate change. Now, with the switch of a single party affiliation, U.S. foreign policy is a whole new ballgame.

Because Jeffords' departure put control of Senate committees in Democratic hands, President Bush's proposed National Missile Defense (NMD) is now all dressed up with nowhere to go. The Democrats, while committed in principle (and by the law of the land) to the building of a limited missile shield, don't see this as an overriding priority (neither, for that matter, does the Pentagon). Certainly, not something worth abrogating arms-control treaties over, especially since the technology is still at a stage when, from a scientific and engineering point of view, the system remains somewhat hypothetical. So despite President Bush's oddly New Democratic offer to share a little of the NMD pork with Russia's arms industry, Moscow is likely to dig in its heels against any abrogation of the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, more confident now that the Senate will restrain Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from any precipitous rush to tear up the treaty and build a missile shield.

Jeffords' move also appears to have emboldened Washington's NATO allies to more strongly signal their skepticism over NMD. In talks held by Secretary of State Colin Powell with NATO leaders in Brussels Tuesday, the Europeans reportedly resisted Washington's appeals for a stronger endorsement of NMD, calling simply for further discussion.

Taken together with signals from the Democrats that they're in no hurry to deploy, it's now a fairly safe bet that while missile defense will remain an article of faith in Washington, it's unlikely to become a reality any time soon.

And it's not only the fortunes of missile defense advocates that may be profoundly altered by Jeffords' turn. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will, no doubt, be relieved that the fate of the hundreds of millions of dollars Washington owes his organization will no longer be captive to the whims of Senator Jesse Helms, who has in the past made agreements dependent on such rather strange conditions as a guarantee that the U.N. would refrain from taking control of the U.S.

By changing the chairmanship and hence the agenda of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jeffords' switch is likely to affect everything from decisions over treaties to key appointments to congressional oversight of such policies as U.S. support for counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia as part of the war on drugs. It's already clear, for example, that the Bush administration's appointee to head the State Department's Latin America desk, Otto Reich, is in trouble. Reich ran the domestic propaganda campaign for the Reagan administration's program backing the Nicaraguan contras, and was nominated with strong backing from right-wing anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee run by anyone other than Jesse Helms may question Reich's appropriateness for the challenges of today's Latin America.

The net effect of the Jeffords' switch in domestic politics is that the Bush administration can no longer govern through a megaphone. It will be forced to seek consensus on key policy matters, which may take some adjustment. And the same will be true on the international stage, much to the relief of the Washington's European allies and even Secretary of State Powell, who has at time looked like a rather lonesome dove in a nest of hawks.

The Europeans had been somewhat nonplussed by the Bush administration, because despite the extremely narrow margin of its election victory it had set out to brashly, and unilaterally, make dramatic changes in the course of U.S. foreign policy. European diplomats speaking off the record had confided that they believed the Bush administration had ushered in an unstable and unpredictable era for the U.S., leaving many of its traditional allies inclined to simply wait out the four or eight years of his tenure. Those who want to see Washington playing a leading role, in consultation with its allies, on the international stage, will be relieved at what Senator Jeffords has wrought. Then again, they could be plunged right back into their nightmare if Senator Robert Torricelli is impeached. But Strom Thurmond's not going to be in office forever… So many butterflies, so many earthquakes.