AMONG the major points of emphasis in President Bush's campaign for reelection are his experience and competence in foreign and defense policy. Yet as the campaign develops, he is mismanaging both areas and is undermining voters' trust.
The president broke a 1982 agreement with China in order to sell $6 billion worth of F-16 planes to Taiwan. This made some political hay for the president in Texas, where the planes are manufactured. But the Chinese have withdrawn from international negotiations aimed at limiting arms sales in the Middle East, they have rejected a United States proposal for a bilateral human-rights commission, and they are threatening retaliation against US exports, including commercial aircraft. All of this was brought on by the same president who felt that good relations with China were important enough to continue most-favored-nation trading arrangements despite continuing human-rights violations.
In addition, Mr. Bush announced $1 billion worth of subsidies for wheat exports. In so doing, he undercut six years of US efforts to move the European Community away from an agricultural policy based on subsidies. If this had been successful, American agriculture would have benefited a great deal more than it will from the proposed subsidies.
The Bush administration brought to a successful conclusion the difficult tripartite negotiations with Mexico and Canada for the North American Free Trade Agreement, a genuinely farsighted arrangement that has the potential to transform the way we do business. But when Gov. Bill Clinton wanted to read the text of the agreement before making any commitment to support it, the president accused him of fudging on it. This led Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to wonder
if the administration "wants to treat this agreement as a campaign issue or as a serious effort." It's a good question.
The president approved the sale of $9 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. This is not as bad as selling F-16s to Taiwan; after all, the Saudis helped a great deal in the Gulf war. But the sale pours more high-tech arms into an area where we have properly been counseling restraint.
ON defense policy, the record is the same and even more expensive. The president announced the rebuilding of Homestead Air Force Base as part of the relief program in Florida after Hurricane Andrew. That base had become less important to the Air Force, even before Andrew, as American involvement in Central America wound down. But Bush claimed that the Customs Service uses the base to chase drug runners, and that the community needs its economic benefits. The Senate has saved the taxpayers on this one, at
Alas, the spirit of frugality is transitory both in Congress and the White House. In the past, the administration opposed a program to develop an aircraft called the V-22 Osprey and another to modernize the Army's M-1 tank, but it caved in to congressional pressure based in districts where these weapons are manufactured. Never mind that the Army already has 8,000 of the tanks in question and does not want any more.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has espoused the old-fashioned view that defense budgets ought to be based on defense considerations. "We're not a social-welfare agency," he noted last March. But campaigning in California last month, Bush charged that Mr. Clinton's proposed defense cuts "would cost as many as 1 million jobs in defense, especially in California's hard-hit aerospace industry." Franklin Roosevelt's WPA is not dead; it's just been transferred to the Pentagon.
Bush has said that Clinton is free to make judgments without considering the international consequences, but that a president has a responsibility to consider both international and domestic implications. This president, however, apparently does not feel the responsibility to consider both of these things at the same time. And he still wants to make trust a campaign issue?