Suppose that, sometime in 1990, U.S. intelligence agencies identify the North African training camp of a band of terrorists that had attacked an American embassy. The Pentagon reports that it can bomb the camp but warns that the raid could result in American casualties and probably would provoke a diplomatic uproar.
Would President Bush give the go-ahead? Would President Dukakis?
Judging from the words and records of the presidential candidates and interviews with their top foreign policy advisers, the answer--in both cases--probably is yes.
Despite the campaign rhetoric, Republican Vice President George Bush and Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis agree that they would use American military force not only to combat terrorism but also to save American lives abroad and to live up to treaty commitments.
However, there are also sharp differences in approach between the candidates when it comes to the use of American military power in pursuit of diplomatic objectives. Especially when U.S. security is not directly threatened, Dukakis seems to be less ready than Bush to sanction military action.
“If one looks at Dukakis’ traditional approach, one would have to say he would be extremely reluctant to engage in what one would call gunboat diplomacy,” said Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in Gerald R. Ford’s Republican Administration.
“The Dukakis campaign is clearly more cautious about these things,” said Harold Brown, Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary. “Gov. Dukakis clearly has indicated that he would not look first to the unilateral use of U.S. force, but, if he judged it necessary, he would not hesitate to use it.”
And the two candidates could hardly be further apart in their attitude toward supporting proxy forces, such as the rebels in Nicaragua, that are fighting to advance U.S. foreign policy goals.
Dukakis takes a dim view of U.S. support for Third World insurgencies. Bush, by contrast, enthusiastically supports the “Reagan Doctrine” of arming and assisting rebels who are seeking to overthrow Marxist governments.
That the next President will be called on at some time to authorize the use of force overseas seems almost inevitable. As Dukakis said when campaigning for last February’s New Hampshire primary: “Only one President in American history--Herbert Hoover--has served a full term in office without being required to use military force.”
Using similar language, advisers to both Bush and Dukakis say the candidates regard the use of force in some circumstances as a legitimate means toward diplomatic ends.
“The willingness to use force has to be part of your diplomatic arsenal,” said Dennis Ross, a senior foreign policy adviser to Bush. “If (Libyan strongman Moammar) Kadafi knows there are no circumstances under which you’re going to use force, then you’re going to see him become a lot more active again. So force has to be seen as one of the instruments of your diplomacy. But it’s still a last-resort option.”
Similarly, Madeleine Albright, Dukakis’ senior foreign policy adviser, said: “One ought to explore diplomatic options, and the use of force should be there as a last resort rather than a first resort.”
The candidates followed different paths to reach this apparent convergence.
Dukakis took positions earlier in his political career that showed a clear predisposition against projecting American force abroad. He opposed the Vietnam War, for example, and supported freezing the deployment of nuclear weapons.
Now that he is battling for the presidency, however, the Democratic nominee has apparently abandoned much of his reluctance about the use of military power.
He now approvingly quotes former President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Bush can claim a more consistent record. He has served as vice president in an Administration that has made more frequent use of military pressure than any Administration since the end of the Vietnam War.
As vice president, Bush never wavered in his support for three major applications of U.S. force abroad: the 1986 bombing of two Libyan cities, which was designed to destroy suspected terrorist installations but also injured Kadafi; the 1983 invasion of Grenada, with the stated purpose of protecting American medical students and other Americans from that Caribbean island’s leftist government, and the continuing naval patrol of the Persian Gulf, designed to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers registered under the U.S. flag.
Ross said a Bush Administration, if faced with similar situations, would adopt a step-by-step escalation intended, if possible, to get the adversary to back down without the use of American force but also to lay the groundwork for military action if lesser measures failed to produce results.
“As you go through these various steps, you put (the adversaries) on notice,” he said. “If they don’t learn their lesson, if their behavior doesn’t change, then they run the risk of an American military response at some point.”
In a speech outlining his foreign policy principles, Bush said: “We will integrate every available and suitable policy instrument into a multifaceted approach. That means using negotiations, intelligence, economic strength and aid, public diplomacy, and, yes, military power.”
Dukakis, according to Albright, has established guidelines to govern the use of U.S. force overseas. “He has said that the United States would obviously use force to deter aggression against its territory, to protect American citizens, honor our treaty obligations and take action against terrorists,” she said.
How would Dukakis apply those guidelines to the situations faced by the Reagan Administration?
“The Libyan raid, to the extent that it was an attempt to take out a terrorist base, was appropriate,” Albright said. “To the extent that it was an attempt to assassinate a foreign leader, it was not appropriate.
“In Grenada, he thinks it is obviously appropriate to protect American lives but questions the extent to which American lives were at stake.”
Dukakis’ position on the Persian Gulf is more complex. He opposed re-registering Kuwaiti tankers under the American flag to bring them under the protection of the U.S. Navy. And he has said he would prefer a multinational naval force to keep the sea lanes open.
However, he notes that the United States has had a naval presence in the gulf for years and he says he would not change that. Regarding the gulf, he said last July: “We have a perfect right to be there.”
In addition to unilateral U.S. action in Libya, Grenada and the Persian Gulf, Reagan sent U.S. troops to the Sinai in 1981 and to Lebanon in 1983 as part of multinational “peacekeeping” forces.
The American soldiers in the Sinai succeeded, without firing a shot, in monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. But the Lebanon operation ended in tragedy when a terrorist truck bomber attacked the Marine barracks, killing about 240 U.S. personnel.
Both candidates say they would not hesitate to participate in similar multinational operations, especially if--as was the case in the Sinai and Lebanon--the international force is invited by the host government.
Dukakis has long preferred multinational forces to unilateral U.S. involvement in Third World trouble spots. Albright said the Democratic candidate supports the principle behind the Lebanon operation, although he questions the way it was carried out. She said Dukakis supports peacekeeping efforts that “are thought of as something to keep the peace and don’t get us engaged in a badly thought-out policy.”
Bush maintains that, although he supports multinational operations, the United States must be ready to act alone when necessary.
The differences between Bush and Dukakis are most clear when it comes to arming and supporting insurgent armies trying to topple regimes that the United States opposes.
Bush, a supporter of U.S. aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, the moujahedeen rebels fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan and Jonas Savimbi’s movement to topple the Marxist government in Angola, accepts the Reagan Doctrine with very few changes.
Ross said that the vice president believes American support for rebels fighting Soviet-backed governments will convince Moscow “that there is a cost of empire"--the cost of financial and political support for a client state that faces armed rebels.
“Bush’s view would be that we should not relieve (Soviet leader Mikhail S.) Gorbachev of the need to make choices,” Ross said. But a Bush Administration, he said, would not support rebels trying to topple governments that are not backed by Moscow, no matter how antagonistic to U.S. interests the governments are.
Albright said Dukakis’ attitude on Third World insurgencies is almost 180 degrees away from Bush’s.
“The governor does not have an ideological approach to foreign policy,” she said. “He does not think it is up to the United States to impose our will on other countries or to create groups that become involved in conflict in other countries.”
Albright said Dukakis supported aid to the moujahedeen in Afghanistan because they were fighting to oust Soviet invaders rather than simply to overthrow a Soviet-backed government. By contrast, she said, Dukakis opposes U.S. support for the rebels in Nicaragua and Angola.
When asked to differentiate between the moujahedeen and the Contras, she said: “The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and nobody invaded Nicaragua.”
Dukakis opposes U.S. aid to the Contras both because he believes that it violates the Rio Pact, which established the Organization of American States, and because he considers it to be bad policy. According to aides, Dukakis gives far more weight to his policy objections than to the treaty.
“Aid to the Contras has provided the Sandinistas with an excuse for further repression,” Albright said. “Gov. Dukakis thinks that it is inappropriate for this country to dictate solutions.”