WASHINGTON — Good news is hard to come by in the Middle East crisis, but one piece of good news is that presidential candidates have shown no sign of trying to use it for political advantage. They may remember how Sen. Robert Dole stumbled with an astonishing reference to "Democrat wars" in his 1976 vice-presidential debate with incumbent Walter Mondale.
In the final presidential debate Tuesday night, Texas Gov. George W. Bush applauded President Clinton for "working hard to defuse tensions." He said nothing more controversial than to note the need for "clear vision."
On the campaign trail, calls for retaliation for the attack on the USS Cole have been voiced in generally nonpartisan terms. Dick Cheney said in Madison, Wis., "It's not time for diplomacy and debate. It's time for action." What sort of action, he didn't say. He has also cited the attack in Aden, Yemen, as justification for putting more resources into the armed forces, although it's hard to imagine how more investment in the military would have saved the destroyer.
Indeed, the attack in Aden may have had the effect of altering the terms of the defense debate, which has been focused on manpower and fancy equipment. Defense Secretary William Cohen has spoken of the paradox of being a superpower and facing foes who resort to terrorism rather than meeting us "head to head." Gen. Richard Neal, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, has talked of "asymmetric warfare." That is, a low-tech threat to a high-tech military. Missile defense is not of much use against a load of explosives.
The Cole explosion takes its place with other low-tech assaults on the American military, like the nonpartisan truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut during the Reagan administration, and the Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia during the Clinton administration. Such acts do not lend themselves well to political posturing, although Cheney has suggested faulty intelligence in the Cole bombing.
The closest Mr. Bush has come to the Mideast crisis is the oil shortage. Aside from criticizing the release of oil from the petroleum reserve, he has talked of the "danger of American reliance on Saddam Hussein's oil," although Iraq plays only a minor part in American oil imports.
Frustration is evident on both sides at the way the presidential campaign is being upstaged by events in Yemen, and the West Bank and Gaza. The conflict over the holy sites in Jerusalem has added a religious component to a nationalist struggle and has generated Muslim demonstrations from Lebanon to Indonesia, from London to Morocco, with synagogue burnings in France and Belgium. There is a danger that the Arab-Israeli conflict may be globalized.
Faced with a veritable clash of cultures, Bush and Vice President Gore seem aware that this is not the time to make points by ringing partisan declarations. On this situation, it is a good time for politicians to lower their voices.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society