As former speaker of the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once famously said: “All politics is local.” He could have added that it is especially so in election time.
O’Neill was referring to the need for politicians to appeal to the everyday concerns of their constituents, but it can also be interpreted as meaning that a country’s foreign policies — especially those that, seen from the outside, appear illogical — are also the product of domestic political wrangling. The moment more than one individual is involved in decision making, the political arrow will point back to the domestic magnetic north, even more so in democracies.
At election time, policy decisions are often made so that a certain candidate or political party can benefit from them — or, conversely, to make things more difficult for an opposing party. By creating a fait accompli, an administration imposes new rules by which its successors must abide.
The administration of US President George W. Bush did two such things in recent weeks, and both measures were meant to put the Republican party at an advantage.
First, on Oct. 3, Bush reversed nearly a year of “arms freeze” policy by agreeing, at the 11th hour, to sell Taiwan US$6.5 billion in advanced military equipment, which includes the state-of-the-art AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter, as well as PAC-3 missile batteries and other items. The first two — the Longbow and the PAC-3 — are key.
The Apache helicopter is designed at the Boeing facility in Mesa, Arizona, a Republican state. Boeing’s in-house publication, Frontiers, has reported the city of Mesa tripled in size since the plant opened 25 years ago and is now the US’ 40th most populous city.
The PAC-3, for its part, includes the Missile Seeker, a component built at the Boeing factory in Anaheim, California, while the entire system is designed by Lockheed Martin at its Camden, Arkansas, facility and other industry partners. Arkansas went Republican in the last two elections, and some pundits claim it could be a Tier I battleground state in the coming election.
The arms deal cannot hurt the Republicans, which historically have been closer to the defense industry than the Democrats. While bringing contracts and creating jobs is a sure vote-winner, the deal will also make it easier for future US administrations to continue selling weapons to Taiwan, as a permanent “freeze” would have become the new baseline in Washington’s dealings with Beijing. What Bush did was to resurrect the “status quo” and in so doing give credence to his policy of helping democracies worldwide.
The other Bush decision was the removal on Saturday of North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism to ensure Pyongyang would comply with its pledge to end its nuclear activities. Given North Korea’s history of brinkmanship, Bush and his aides know fully well that the delisting was, at best, a stopgap measure and that Pyongyang will eventually find a new argument to resume its bad-neighbor politics. The move was nevertheless a last-ditch attempt to salvage a process that the Bush administration has invested heavily in since 2003 and to leave a legacy of “accomplishments” that could put the Republicans in a more favorable light — even if the move meant angering Tokyo.
With Bush’s Middle East peace plan going nowhere fast, Iraq still shaky, Afghanistan a mess, the “war” on terrorism an exercise in futility and Wall Street in shambles, Bush and the Republicans needed quick “wins” before the curtain falls on Nov. 4. Taiwan and North Korea provided them.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
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