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Double Standards and Spin: Liberal Attacks on Bush's Foreign Policy

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
July 30, 2001
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The man, many would argue, has been asking for it. By refusing to sign a number of treaties with broad international support, President Bush has put the United States out of step with many of our allies and, in some cases, angered them. This has given some liberal opinion-shapers the perfect ammunition to accuse the President of being a "radical," an "isolationist," and of "abdicating his global role." Much of this spin plays off a faulty impression that Bush's attitude towards these treaties differs dramatically from that of former President Clinton. In fact, when it comes to international treaties, Bush has so far taken similar stances to our last president.

The Clinton record

The barrage of criticism against Bush for refusing to sign onto a number of different treaties is significantly more than President Clinton ever faced. Indeed, it is often spun as being some sort of a new turn in American foreign policy. Anthony Lewis, for instance, says in his July 21 New York Times column "Bush the Radical" that Bush's "changes in national security policy are ... radical."

Just how radical is Bush, however? He has been criticized for inaction or rejection of a number of international agreements, including the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, a germ warfare protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, the 1997 Land Mine Treaty, and an agreement on an International Criminal Court. As USA Today points out, however, these positions aren't much different from those of President Clinton. While Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, he made no attempt to win ratification of it by the Senate. He also delayed signing the 1997 Land Mine Treaty, saying the U.S. might join in 2006 if a "suitable alternative" could be found. On the issue of an International Criminal Court, Clinton waited until three weeks before leaving office to sign it, leaving no chance the Senate would ratify it before Bush took over.

Clinton also continued development and testing of a missile defense system throughout most of his presidency, deciding towards the end to delay a decision over its fate for the next President. Developing a missile shield would require re-negotiating or scrapping the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile [ABM] treaty between the US and Russia, as Bush is now proposing. While it is true that Clinton often took a more accommodating attitude towards such international accords - often promising to work harder to find common ground - his policies were not that different in practice.

An illogical Chronicle

An editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle that condemns the President for the various treaties he has refused to sign or submit for Senate ratification is an excellent example of how liberals have assumed a big shift, and then spun it out of control. "[Bush's] message", the Chronicle says, is that "[t]he world's No. 1 power wants to go it alone."

The Chronicle then delves into its spin by stating that "By far the biggest blunder is Bush's refusal to curb global warming." The editors, are, of course, referring to his refusal to assent to the Kyoto Protocol. The President has, however, said numerous times that he wants to address the problem, but that he does not think the Kyoto Protocol is in America's best interests. For the purposes of drumming up opposition to the President, however, many opponents have equated his refusal to sign certain treaties with a refusal to even deal with the problem. While it may indeed be possible Bush will do little about global warming, his opposition to Kyoto is certainly not proof of that.

The Chronicle editorial ends with an even bigger, illogical leap. It concludes that, in total, the President's refusal to sign all of these treaties is evidence he is "abdicating his global role and inviting anti-American sentiment." While there is some evidence to support the claim that anti-American sentiment is increasing, "global role" is used to make Bush seem irresponsible. Most people would not believe in shirking America's "global role". It is akin to saying someone is against "progress," or "growth." These words clearly mean different things to different people. A conservative, for instance, could easily argue that the U.S.'s global role is not to merely sign treaties because most other countries have. This is all too typical of the fuzzy logic that underlies much of the liberal criticism of the President's foreign policy.

Lewis's exaggerations

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis has been one of the leaders of the Bush-as-isolationist assault. In his "Bush the Radical" column (see above), Lewis attempts to contrast Bush with Presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, who led the U.S. into international engagements like the United Nations and NATO that still define much of our foreign policy. He accuses the President of "upsetting fundamentals that have defined our international outlook for more than 50 years."

Lewis also claims that the Bush Administration has a "zeal to break the ABM treaty." While it is true that Bush wants to either re-negotiate or scrap the ABM, it is also true that, as Lewis admits, Bush wants to negotiate a new framework, which would not necessitate breaking the treaty. There is certainly little evidence to back up the claim that Bush and his aides have a "zeal" to break the treaty, given the President's ongoing negotiations with Russian President Putin. This is simply Lewis's way of spinning - projecting a strong desire onto what presidential advisors have called a possibility.

This speculation ends up being Lewis's most reasonable criticism, however, as he next points out that Administration officials have suggest the U.S. "may" resume nuclear testing. This possible move, he notes, would violate a ban that America has long observed. However, it is also true that the U.S. never signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, although President Clinton did attempt to get the Senate to ratify it. As a result, Lewis's argument that the U.S. is pulling out of agreements that defined our foreign policy in the past doesn't hold. Moreover, it is based primarily on speculation. USA Today, for instance, says in its previously mentioned article that "Bush has promised to abide by a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing."

Finally, and without noting any specific evidence, Lewis accuses the President of not taking NATO seriously. "Facing difficult problems in the Balkans," he says, "[the Administration] seems to have taken the view that we can pick and choose which NATO missions we will join, or on what terms." In fact, however, the President has made no move to withdraw U.S. troops from the NATO mission in the Balkans. While it is true that Bush has repeatedly said that he will determine which international missions to take part in based on what he defines as America's interests, Lewis is once again basing his argument on speculation. He also fails to note the years it took for President Clinton and former President Bush to make a decisive move in the Balkans with NATO.

Spinning out of proportion

Lewis and the Chronicle are far from the only liberals to unfairly spin Bush's foreign policy. Many liberal pundits have clearly been looking for big issues on which to criticize Bush's leadership. Such arguments must be based on fact, however, meaning real actions placed in a fair historical context. Instead, President Bush has been framed as an isolationist pursuing a risky course, when in fact he has simply not signed onto some treaties that had, in most cases, little support from President Clinton. Liberal pundits would be wise to cut back on their spin and base their arguments on what the President actually does.

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Related links:
-Another liberal cheap shot against Bush (Brendan Nyhan, 7/27)
-Kyoto cheap shots at Bush (Brendan Nyhan, 7/24)
-Bush pre-spins European critics (Ben Fritz, 6/12)
-Missile defense (Brendan Nyhan, 5/3)
-The Rhetoric of Uncertainty (Bryan Keefer, 4/30)

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