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Steady as She Goes, on Course to Disaster? : Lacking a Compass, Bush Team May Too Easily Accept a Tilt to Left

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“The Establishment is back,” a Washington Post editor wrote a few days ago, “not just the individuals and the pedigrees but the state of mind.” David Ignatius, the editor of Outlook, noted that Secretary of State-designate James A. Baker III was busily consulting with his predecessors in a way that was reminiscent of “the best and the brightest” at the outset of John F. Kennedy’s Administration. Andover, Yale and Princeton are back in the saddle. The new buzzwords in President Bush’s Washington are said to be bipartisan foreign policy and partnership with Congress.

How long is this chumminess likely to last? Lurking beneath the comparison with the best and the brightest is the implicit prediction of disaster ahead. Kennedy’s Ivy Leaguers soon strolled into the quagmire of Vietnam. Does a similar fate await Bush’s team, so many of whom come from a comparable background?

Conservatives fear that this might be the case. Bush clearly regards conservatives as one among many interest groups to be placated, not as the source of a philosophy that is perilous to ignore. By all accounts, policy in the Bush Administration is to be determined by a pragmatic weighing of conflicting advice. This sounds fine, but in practice it doesn’t work.

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In the absence of a philosophy of government it is difficult to assess the merits of advice given by conflicting experts. President Jimmy Carter stayed up till midnight in the Oval Office agonizing over rival reports on energy policy. To deregulate or not to deregulate? Meanwhile, we waited in gasoline lines. Armed with a philosophy, President Ronald Reagan decided right away, and by mid-afternoon could usually head off to the family quarters upstairs. This is not to say that a free-market philosophy (Reagan’s, in the case of energy policy) is always right, but some philosophy is needed when decisions have to be made every day, and often quickly.

It is not clear at present that Bush has such a philosophy. The public service that his patrician father urged on him merely restates the problem of government. It does not solve it. Washington is currently celebrating the belief that the new skipper has arrived at the White House without a compass. This is a pleasant prospect for Beltway hands, who have a compass of their own and will be only too happy to let Bush use it. It comes with a built-in Democratic “tilt,” and suggests a course to the left of center.

It is considered tactless to point out that the present consensus in Washington was achieved by the Reagan Administration’s latter-day adoption of Democratic policies. Somehow in the last two years Reagan mislaid his compass and borrowed the Beltway’s model. Bush has strongly signaled that he intends to continue using it.

Conservatives believe that this course--steady as she goes--will end in one disaster or another. And they note the irony: Reagan’s capitulations came late enough in the day that their effects would not be experienced on his watch, but on that of his successor.

The principal architects of Reagan’s emerging pragmatism, it is widely believed in Washington, were Secretary of State George P. Shultz and James Baker. Now, as the incoming secretary of state, Baker will justly inherit the whirlwind. Here are a few of the storm warnings.

A new agreement in Southern Africa, signed after the November election, could easily lead to the Marxist takeover of Namibia and its permanent enthronement in Angola.

In Nicaragua the Contras have been abandoned in all but name. Cubans and Soviets will now have a freer hand to continue their surreptitious military advance in that country, from which tens of thousands of Nicaraguans are fleeing to the United States. Bush has suggested that he will “take a look at” our refugee policy, and has hinted at the worst solution: more federal aid for refugees.

El Salvador’s economy has been reduced to shambles by U.S. economic aid, and its government is propped up by U.S. military aid. Nothing has been done to address the Latin American debt problem, the “Baker plan” having failed. Only a move toward free markets will help Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Peru. Yet bailing out U.S. banks as a prelude to further loans, which appears to be Baker’s strategy, is the one course of action guaranteed to postpone the shift to free markets.

Meanwhile, all these countries are threatened by leftward-moving governments. But the real danger lies in the Soviet Union, precisely because their economy appears to be collapsing. No longer can the Soviets believe that they will overtake us by peaceful means. Militarily they are still strong, but this cannot long outlast economic decline.

Prudently, we should calculate that their military commanders may soon start thinking what is for us the unthinkable: Use it or lose it. And so we should be thinking of defense--strategic defense. But the Establishment, the one that is now “back” and running things in Washington, does not want to defend America. And it does not want to because it is afraid to. “This tremendous opposition to introducing a defensive element to the U.S. deterrent strategy,” Air Force Chief of Staff Larry D. Welch said recently, “has to be one of the most mysterious pieces of political chemistry we’ve seen.” Meanwhile, James Baker wants to continue pursuing arms control. In this connection, arms-control director Gen. William F. Burns told me recently that the nearly completed START agreement will entail dismantling half of our existing nuclear submarines.


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