Let's not mince words here: George W. Bush did not come in second last week in the debates.
He came in fourth, because anyone watching could see that Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe
Lieberman all had a better command of the issues than Mr. Bush and seemed more like
presidential timber than he did.

That voters noted that is unquestionable.
But whether they will care on Election Day is another question.
Will voters care more about Mr. Gore's intelligence, or his maddening tendency
to pander and fib? Will they punish Mr. Gore for his intellectual arrogance,
or reward Mr. Bush for his affable ignorance? Whom will voters prefer?

A candidate who can't tell the truth, or one who can't pronounce it?
A candidate who sometimes will say anything or a candidate who sometimes seems to know nothing?

These are all open questions. But there are still two more debates for Mr. Bush to regroup in.
The place he must improve most tomorrow is on foreign policy. Mr. Bush's answers to the foreign
policy questions were so deeply, deeply shallow that you could only wonder: Is he that unfamiliar
with the material and uncomfortable with the issues, or have his foreign policy advisers simply not
prepared him because they themselves are unprepared for this world?
I think it was a little of both.

Consider the moment when Mr. Bush was asked how he would respond to another sudden
global financial crisis. He said: I would call Alan Greenspan and I would gather the facts.

So would my mother.
But she doesn't think she should be president.

This is the essence of Mr. Bush's foreign policy.
I would call Colin Powell.
I would call Alan Greenspan.

But what will he ask those advisers, and what happens if they disagree?
For that Mr. Bush actually has to know something himself, and he appears
to be a man with little intellectual curiosity. Mr. Bush seems to believe that by
simply mentioning the name Colin Powell on foreign policy, he has a foreign policy.
Had Mr. Bush listened to Mr. Powell on Kosovo, there would probably never have
been a U.S. air war against Slobodan Milosevic and he would still be in power.

Mr. Bush's non-answers were a reflection of the shallow level of thinking about foreign
policy generally in the Republican Party today. The fact is, the mainstream of the GOP,
which for decades had the cold war and anti-Sovietism to guide it abroad, has simply
gone brain dead since the cold war ended. It has lived off Clinton gaffes and a kind of
drive-by foreign policy, in which Republicans drive by the White House, shout some
insult at the Clinton team and drive on. The only original efforts to come to terms with
the end of the cold war in the Republican Party have been the hyper-isolationist American
nationalism of Pat Buchanan or the hyper-interventionist American nationalism articulated
by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. Since Mr. Bush is not interested in either, it is not
surprising that when pressed on foreign policy he falls back on name- dropping or on
neo-cold-warism, such as his vow to "rebuild military power," which "starts with a
billion-dollar pay raise for the men and women who wear the uniform."

That would be fine if we were still fighting the cold war, and what threatened America today
was the strength of Russia, China, Pakistan or Indonesia. But the fact is, what really threatens
our security and the stability of the world we live in today is the weakness and potential collapse
of all these post-cold-war states because of their lack of institutions and total corruption.

If anything, we should be spending a billion dollars on upgrading our diplomatic tools,
such as the international development banks, on restructuring foreign aid and debt relief
to help countries build the necessary democratic institutions for governing, and on
strengthening the U.N., precisely so it can do the peacekeeping and nation-building
that we want to avoid.

The best you can say about Mr. Bush is that he has thought about the world and decided
that it's still the 1980's, and therefore he plans to solve the problems of his father's era with
his father's old advisers. The worst you can say is that deep into this campaign he still hasn't
been able to master his briefing book on foreign policy and has evinced zero interest in thinking
about the world afresh.

Since he may be our next president, both alternatives are troubling.


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