IHT - Like Johnson, yoday's contenders ignore Foreign Relations

Paris, Monday, December 13, 1999

By William Pfaff - Los Angeles Times Syndicate

PARIS - John Kenneth Galbraith, in his 91st year something of an American sage, recently said that after long reflection he has concluded that Lyndon Johnson, whom he bitterly opposed over the Vietnam war, ranks ''next only to Franklin Roosevelt as a force for civilized and civilizing social policy'' in modern U.S. history.

George McGovern, the Democratic anti-war candidate in 1972, has said the same.

Johnson's reputation, during the three decades since he renounced a second term, has been that of the man who went into Vietnam and didn't know how to get out. Both popular and academic opinion have blamed the war on him.

His tragedy - and it was a tragedy - was that he knew his own nation and its internal politics intimately, but understood little of foreign relations or of how the world really worked outside America's comforting and enclosing frontiers.

Of the major candidates for the 2000 presidential nominations, none has much of a record on foreign policy, either its practice or its formulation. What happened to LBJ is therefore of more than historical interest.

An oppressive uniformity exists in what all today's major presidential candidates say about America's relationship to the world, and the policies it should follow. They all give voice to a Washington policy consensus unrevised and largely uncriticized for years.

Danger, we are told, comes from ''rogue nations,'' a U.S.-nominated category of states hostile to the United States sometimes, as in Iran's case, for good reasons.

''International terrorism'' is a second cited threat. Virtually all this terrorism either ricochets from the Israeli-Arab conflict or protests against American military presence near the Islamic Holy Places.

The list of threats ordinarily continues with ''ethnic conflict'' (where the United States actually involves itself only if it so chooses) and with unspecified potential threats from Russia and China, both currently described by the U.S. government as ''strategic partners.''

In the face of these supposed dangers, the candidates all promise ''strength.'' Most say they want more money for U.S. military forces, already more powerful than any imaginable combination of foes.

The campaign debate is sterile. Take the case of the Democrat Bill Bradley, who is not only intelligent but probably has the most knowledge of foreign relations. In a major speech at the Fletcher School at Tufts University outside Boston, he recently said that he preferred trade and diplomacy to force, and would set ''clearer'' limits on U.S. military interventions.

He said a president must ''maintain our leadership in the world.'' He wants to ''create a comprehensive framework for peace, security and prosperity that's not only in the interestsof America, but of everyone, everywhere.''

Turn away from those globalist platitudes and listen to the conservative maverick Pat Buchanan. He says, ''Why can we not at least talk to Iran and Iraq?'' He asks why American elites fail to grasp ''the reality that interventionism is the incubator of terrorism.'' He asks what ''cataclysmic act of violence'' will be necessary ''to finally awaken our gamesmen to the costs of global hegemony?''

He wants to ''accelerate the day of Europe's reclaiming its full independence by setting a date certain for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops.''

One may not like these ideas, but they are not stupid. They pose issues that the mainstream debate, for politically expedient reasons, ignores or obfuscates.Mr. Buchanan has marginalized himself by some of the positions he has taken, making it easy for the other candidates to ignore his foreign policy challenge. The country would be better off, however, if those candidates had been compelled to offer concrete arguments in rebuttal.

The United States has had four presidents since World War II who were intellectually and temperamentally qualified to conduct foreign policy. The first was Harry Truman, intensely interested in and knowledgeable about history, and courageous and decisive. The second was Dwight Eisenhower, the experienced military diplomat and manager of the great wartime and postwar alliances.

The third was John Kennedy, interested in foreign affairs since before the war, highly intelligent and, again, as far as one can tell from his brief presidency, with good policy instincts. Whether he would have maintained the Vietnam intervention is an unanswerable question.

The last was Richard Nixon, who knew a lot, cared, but had a fatally cynical conviction that brute force could always prevail. He discovered that this was untrue.

Lyndon Johnson was a great domestic reformer. He inherited the Vietnam War from Eisenhower and Kennedy. The latter left him an interventionist and ideologically committed foreign policy staff. They intimidated him. He believed that he could not dismiss them, and that they made it politically impossible for him to withdraw from the war.

His response to the dilemma was to quit the presidency. He went back to Texas, where it is not fanciful to suggest that he died of a broken heart.

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