Morality and Bush Foreign Policy

AS the tragedy of the Kurdish refugees unfolds in Iraq, George Bush's post-Gulf-war honeymoon may turn out to be surprisingly short-lived. Instead of simply basking in the aftermath of the quick and easy victory in Iraq, Mr. Bush is coming under increasingly sharp attacks from critics of both the left and the right. Their moral arguments, which represent a powerful stream of American political culture, may begin to undermine the president's aura of foreign policy success, and hence, his overall populari ty. Morally outraged conservatives are citing two historical cases which parallel the Bush administration's decision not to aid the Iraqi Kurds: Soviet inaction as the Nazis brutally suppressed the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1944, and American refusal to aid the Hungarian rebellion of 1956.

Liberals in anguish over the current situation might cite another precedent: the killing fields of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in the mid-1970s. They can make the case that it was American intervention during the Vietnam war that destabilized Kampuchea, beginning the process that finally led to genocide.

In terms of the American political scene, the most interesting thing about the current debate is that liberals and conservatives are allied in opposition to Bush's post-Gulf-war policy. Both groups have a sense of moral indignation - liberals because Bush seems to have ignored the human costs of his policy, conservatives because he has not finished the job he supposedly set out to do.

The aftermath of the Gulf war is not the first time these strange bedfellows have found themselves in agreement regarding Bush's foreign policy. The administration's coddling of the Chinese government following the Tiananmen Square massacre resulted in a similar outcry from both liberals and conservatives. Tiananmen Square served as but one indication that, for the first time since Richard Nixon, there is a realist in the White House, someone for whom security takes precedence over morality.

High-sounding rhetoric aside, Bush did complete his mission in Iraq and at costs he deemed acceptable. In contrast to conservative aims, Operation Desert Storm was not a moral crusade against oppression or in favor of democracy, neither in Iraq nor in Kuwait. Bush set out to liberate Kuwait and reestablish its prewar government. He did just that.

In contrast to liberal values, Iraqi costs had no place in Bush's calculations. This was a war not for ideals but for interests. What counted were American costs.

Despite his initial success, however, Bush has not yet secured a long-term foreign policy victory. Of immediate concern to the president is the possibility that Iraq could disintegrate, in which case his attempt to stabilize a region vital to American security interests will have backfired.

Even if Iraq remains intact, however, the debate sparked by human rights atrocities could eventually undermine the president's popularity as the American people search for moral content in a policy that is fundamentally amoral. Whether taming the continent or making the world safe for democracy, the US has always been a nation in search of a vision.

ONE reason, among others, for the failure of the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy is that it lacked a moral vision that could be communicated to the public: establishing a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union and a balance of power with other leading nations simply did not satisfy the American people. It is no accident that the following two presidencies (the Ford interregnum aside) resurrected the moral component of foreign policy, albeit in dichotomous manifestations. What were Jimmy Carter's human-right s campaigns and Ronald Reagan's battle against the "Evil Empire" if not crusades for the international realization of the American purpose?

George Bush has often joked about his lack of the "vision thing." While he has been fortunate up to now (events in Eastern Europe helped eclipse the anger at his very pragmatic response to Tiananmen Square), events in Iraq and Kuwait could dull the post-Gulf-war glow. The American people might begin to wonder not only about the human tragedy of the Kurds, but about dictatorship in Iraq and Kuwait. A Soviet crackdown in the Baltics, which would almost certainly be met with caution by the administration, as has thus far been the case, would likely exacerbate this disquiet.

The ultimate danger for George Bush is that if the gleam of his foreign policy is tarnished, his presidency could well be left without any luster at all. It is only his foreign policy success that has obscured the complete failure of his administration on the domestic front.

If disaffection with Bush's foreign policy builds rapidly enough - which will be dependent on international events - it could bode badly for his reelection hopes in 1992. More likely, the consequences will not play out until 1996, when the American people will turn once again to a president whose foreign policy transcends a search for security. Whether the next president's moral vision will be of the left or the right, only time will tell.

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