Like it or not, George W. Bush is looking more and more inevitable,
at least as the Republican nominee. Although he has something of a
record as governor of Texas, his views on various issues are — at least
at this stage — not exactly crystal-clear. On foreign policy the
picture is, if anything, hazier. He made an early statement supporting
at least the idea of a U.S./NATO commitment in Kosovo, though arguing
that whatever is done should be done decisively and quickly. Otherwise,
his views on foreign policy are not widely known.

That’s one reason I took advantage of the fact that I’m spending this
week as (ahem!) a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford to
talk with Condoleezza Rice. She has been Provost at Stanford — sort of
the operating officer, second in rank to the president — for the last
six years. Before that she was on the National Security Council during
the Bush administration and had a solid academic reputation as a scholar
in international affairs with a concentration on Russia and Eastern
Europe.

She has functioned as an informal adviser to Gov. Bush for some time
now. She has also announced that she will be taking a year’s leave from
Stanford. Does that mean she will show up as a top-level adviser,
perhaps a full-time staffer in the Bush campaign?

Not necessarily, she told me. Her decision to take a year off from
academia was made independently of any impact on the Bush campaign. “At
six years I’ve held the Provost position for the second-longest period
in Stanford’s history,” she said. “I’ve gotten away from close
involvement in foreign affairs, I haven’t been able to travel to Russia
for a couple of years, and it’s
just time to consider how to return to the policy issues that still
fascinate me, whether as a teacher, a researcher or something else.”

Although she offered no dramatic breaking news, Condoleezza Rice did
offer some interesting perspectives on current foreign-policy issues.
And while she was quite clear that she believes Gov. Bush’s foreign
policy will be his, not something whispered in his ear by an adviser,
her views and opinions should be fairly influential and of some wider
interest.

On the Kosovo war, she said there were enough issues with legitimate
national-interest implications to justify the use of military power. But
she criticized the Clinton administration for taking an incremental,
gradualist approach once the bombing began, and for not having a
clear-cut set of objectives.

What brought national interest into play? Ms. Rice said that ethnic
cleansing on the scale that everybody believed Slobodan Milosevic was
about to undertake, combined with the fact that it was taking place
right in Europe’s back yard, made it a serious concern for Europe and,
through the NATO connection, the United States. Milosevic’s actions were
not only outrageous from a human rights or humanitarian perspective,
they constituted a serious challenge to the very idea of a multi-ethnic
democracy. She also believes that the proper security zone for the
United States includes Europe and the Middle East, and the Balkans are
right smack in the middle of it.

I disagree, but at least it’s not as open-ended as the policy one
might deduce from the Clinton rhetoric, that the United States has to
get involved whenever anyone, anywhere in the world, is suffering
because it’s for the children.

Once the bombing campaign began, she said, it struck only a portion
of the legitimate military targets. The early decision not to target
Serb troops in Kosovo made it easier for the subsequent ethnic cleansing
to be done. Heavier bombing from the outset could have shortened the
war, Condoleezza believes.

She is very concerned that the American people, and especially the
foreign policy establishment, will learn the wrong lesson from this war
— that many important military and diplomatic objectives can be reached
through a stand-off campaign of bombing from 15,000 feet. “Military
conflict always entails risks, and usually bigger risks than are at
first anticipated,” she said. “If we start to get the idea we can have
risk-free wars whenever some foreign leader displeases us, we’ll be in a
lot of trouble, and sooner rather than later.”

She also cautioned against Clinton giving in to the impulse to brag
and carry on about the fact that this war was concluded without combat
casualties on the NATO side. “That fact is already resented in much of
the rest of the world and will be resented more if we make a big deal of
it,” she said. It will lead to people believing the United States will
do most anything to avoid casualties (while not hesitating to inflict
them). She singled out the use of the term “indispensable nation” as
something politicians and diplomats should avoid. It could compound the
Clinton policy that combines arrogance and aggressiveness to equal
ineffectiveness.

“Don’t let strategic air power, and especially the cruise missile,
become a drug,” she said.

As for Gov. Bush, Condoleezza claims he has “terrific instincts”
about America’s role in the world. She notes that as a governor of a
large border state with a long international border and numerous
ticklish issues about which he has had to meet with the head of at least
one foreign state, he has had more international experience than most
people realize. She also says he is a quick and eager learner who
processes new information well. She thinks he will be more modest in his
rhetoric than President Clinton has been — in part because he is a
decisive man who will do what he says and say what he thinks, so he will
not be inclined to declare grandiose plans and policies unless he’s
serious about them. And while he believes the United States has a key
role to play in the world at large, he isn’t inclined to be a crusader
or an empire builder.

Condoleezza Rice’s view of America’s political role in the world at
large — and presumably George W.’s insofar as she has influence — is
considerably more expansive than mine. But it is at least a rational
view informed by something more substantial than pseudo-moral posturing
and campaign-style sound bites. She strikes me as genuinely intelligent
and informed on issues, not just glib enough to gull the media (or did
she just do that?).

If America is going to ignore my long-standing advice that we abolish
the office of the presidency and elect one anyway, and if the Oval
inhabitant turns out to be George W., he could do a lot worse than
paying attention to Condoleezza Rice. Being a president, of course, he
probably will do a lot worse.

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