WHEN President-elect Bush announced his national security team last December, a lot of us who follow foreign affairs declared it the ``A'' team.
That was a straight forward assessment that Colin Powell at State, Donald Rumsfeld at Defense, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley at the National Security Council and Dick Cheney overseeing it all were a veritable All-Star roster of foreign-policy and national-security talent. Experienced, savvy, conservative but practical, managers who understood the world.
It also was a statement that implicitly contrasted Bush's team with that of outgoing President Clinton who had, to be generous, the ``B'' team.
Six months later, the ``A'' team is getting ``F'' grades from people who watch national security policy. Instead of the All-Star team that we thought the woefully inexperienced Bush had put together, it looks as if he has the team that couldn't shoot straight. It makes you nostalgic for the days of Warren Christopher.
The Bush team seems disjointed, out of step with the times, more ideological than practical, arrogant and, at times, even inept. It seems to be operating in a time warp when security considerations instead of economics were the center of international relations and the key to American influence in the world.
The first real clue that there was trouble ahead came early on when Bush denounced the Clinton administration's policy on North Korea while South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who supported the Clinton policy, was standing by him. A few months later, Bush's father, former President Bush, had a former aide send a letter to the White House pleading not to abandon the policy Kim favored. Even then the turnaround has been only half-hearted.
The latest example is the botched plan at the United Nations to replace the economic sanctions against Iraq that were not working with a more targeted plan, the so-called smart sanctions. The administration actually persuaded France and China to support the plan at the Security Council after considerable diplomatic effort and concessions on other matters, only to have to drop the entire plan because the Russians said they would veto it.
Even officials inside the administration admit this matter was bungled. Some believe that, if Bush had made clear to Vladimir Putin at their recent summit that this was a matter of first importance, the Russians would have cooperated. But for the Bush administration the chief topic with Putin was missile defense, an impractical, highly controversial, unaffordable program that will not be ready for years to come.
In between Korea and Iraq, the Bush foreign policy team has reversed gears on its Mideast policy, first saying it wouldn't be involved, then getting very involved without any results; reversed its policy on the Balkans, first saying it would withdraw U.S. troops from Kosovo but now stepping up U.S. involvement in Macedonia; strained relations with China by reversing two decades of deliberate ambiguity over Taiwan; alienated its European allies by gratuitously trashing the Kyoto Treaty on global warming; needlessly denounced the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; and has now devised a new defense strategy that some experts term bizarre and will be unaffordable because of Bush's tax cuts.
What's going on here? For one, those of us who thought this was the ``A'' team didn't realize how out of step its members had become in the last eight years. They seem to be pretending the Clinton years didn't happen, that nothing really changed in the world between 1993 and 2001.
Also, the administration is being staffed at the middle and lower levels with right-wing ideologues who are more interested in making debating points about missile defense and the test-ban treaty than looking after long-term U.S. interests and relationships.
And the person who is supposed to be coordinating policy, Rice, isn't, according to some accounts. She has defined her role as a close personal adviser to Bush, not as the coordinator of a very contentious foreign-policy team.
Most administrations start by making mistakes on foreign policy as the reality of running the world clashes with campaign rhetoric. In that sense these early bumblings by the Bush group are not fatal, although the problems with this administration might be more serious. But this much is clear: The real first national-security test for the Bush team is going to be recognizing it's not as good as it or we thought it was and making the adjustments needed to have a coherent, practical foreign policy.
James Klurfeld is editor of Newsday's editorial pages.
© 2001 The Mercury News.