Policy speaker packs house

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— American presidential elections typically are decided on "pocketbook issues" such as the economy and health care, but not this year.

That was the message a former deputy secretary of state told a standing-room-only audience at Centennial Hall.

Foreign policy will determine whether President Bush or Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is commander in chief in January, Strobe Talbott said Friday during his Seminars at Steamboat appearance.

Talbott, a top State Department official in the Clinton administration and president of the Brookings Institution, said it has been 36 years since foreign policy loomed so large on a presidential election.

Of course, it didn't have to be that way.

"If President Bush, in his response to 9/11, had stopped with the war in Afghanistan, I don't think his challenger today, whoever it were, would be running against him on foreign-policy issues," Talbott said.

But the war in Iraq has come to represent "what is most controversial about America's role in the world," he said, namely the Bush administration's use of hard power -- military might and coercive alliances -- before the soft power of diplomacy and international agreements.

The Bush administration's tendency to "go it alone" differs greatly from the foreign policy employed successfully by Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush, Talbott said.

The elder Bush had an extraordinary record with diplomacy and foreign policy, Talbott said. It was the former President Bush who helped make the demise of the Soviet Union a "soft landing" rather than a "crash landing." He also was instrumental in the peaceful reunification of Germany. And when necessary, the elder Bush used hard force effectively, such as his use of the United Nations to wage war against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

The Clinton administration followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, using diplomatic efforts to help build strong international alliances such as NATO and the G-8, Talbott said.

But that tendency toward soft power was pushed out the door when Bush took office.

"The current President Bush entered the Oval Office far more skeptical than any of his predecessors about the utility of international treaties and alliances," Talbott said.

Bush has "shot down" about a dozen major treaties since he took office, and "this 'treaty allergy' continues right up to the present day," Talbott said.

Talbott, who thinks Saddam personified an outlaw regime that would have to be removed eventually, said no other candidate who ran for president in 2000 would have faced Iraq alone.

Bush, in effect, bet his presidency on the war in Iraq. And the premises for that war have been discredited, Talbott said.

Kerry is counting on Bush to be his own biggest enemy in this fall's election. In reality, Kerry's plan for Iraq will be quite similar to Bush's, and either candidate will face an enormous challenge in reconstructing the Middle East nation, Talbott said. The same challenge will exist in trying to repair the broken international relationships once enjoyed by previous presidents -- including the former President Bush.

Seminars at Steamboat continues next week with nationally syndicated political columnist E.J. Dionne.

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