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Presidential Debate Excerpts: Gov. George W. Bush vs. Vice President Al Gore

October 12, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Almost half of last night’s 90-minute session was devoted to foreign affairs. The conversation began with a question on fundamentals from moderator Jim Lehrer.

JIM LEHRER: One of you is about to be elected the leader of the single most powerful nation the world– economically, financially, militarily, diplomatically, you name it. Have you formed any guiding principles for exercising this enormous power?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I have. I have. The first question is what’s in the best interest of the United States? What’s in the best interest of our people? When it comes to foreign policy, that will be my guiding question. Is it in our nation’s interests? Peace in the Middle East is in our nation’s interests. Having a hemisphere that is free for trade and peaceful is in our nation’s interests. Strong relations in Europe is in our nation’s interests. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be the President. I also understand an administration is not one person but an administration is dedicated citizens who are called by the President to serve the country, to serve a cause greater than self. And so I’ve thought about an administration of people who represent all America, but people who understand my compassionate and conservative philosophy.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: I see our greatest natural… national strength coming from what we stand for in the world. I see it as a question of values. It is a great tribute to our founders that 224 years later, this nation is now looked to by the peoples on every other continent, and the peoples from every part of this earth as a kind of model for what their future could be. And I don’t think that’s just the kind of exaggeration that we take pride in as Americans. It’s really true. Even the ones that sometimes shake their fists at us –as soon as they have a change that allows the people to speak freely, they’re wanting to develop some kind of blueprint that will help them be like us more.

RAY SUAREZ: There was broad agreement on many issues, small distinctions made in several others.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we’ve got to be humble, and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: I think that one of the problems that we have faced in the world is that we are so much more powerful than any single nation has been in relationship to the rest of the world than at any time in history, that I know about anyway, that there is some resentment of U.S. power. So I think that the idea of humility is an important one.

RAY SUAREZ: But in the midst of Governor Bush’s general agreement with the Clinton administration and the vice President over the bombing of Kosovo, the two candidates began to show their contrasts more clearly.

JIM LEHRER: Governor, new question. Should the fall of Milosevic be seen as a triumph for U.S. military intervention?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I think it’s a triumph. I thought the President made the right decision in joining NATO in bombing Serbia. I supported them when they did so. I called upon the Congress not to hamstring the administration, and in terms of forcing troop withdrawals on a timetable, it wasn’t in necessarily our best interests or fit our nation’s strategy. I am also on record as saying in some point of time, I hope our European friends become the peacekeepers in Bosnia and in the Balkans. I hope that they put the troops on the ground, so that we can withdraw our troops and focus our military on fighting and winning war.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Maybe I’ve heard the previous statements wrong, Governor. In some of the discussions we’ve had about when it’s appropriate for the U.S. to use force around the world, at times the standards that you’ve laid down have given me the impression that if it’s something like a genocide taking place or what they called ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, that that alone would not be… that that wouldn’t be the kind of situation that would cause you to think that the U.S. ought to get involved with three troops. There have to be other factors involved for me to want to be involved. But by itself that to me can bring into play a fundamental American strategic interest because I think it’s based on our values. Now have I got that wrong?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: If I think it’s in our nation’s strategic interest, I’ll commit troops. I thought it was in our strategic interests to keep Milosevic in check because of our relations in NATO, and that’s why I took the position I took. I think it’s important for NATO to be strong and confident. I felt like an unchecked Milosevic would harm NATO. And so it depends on the situation, Mr. Vice President.

RAY SUAREZ: The two candidates supported nearly all the major American military actions of the last 20 years. But again and again they returned to the whens, and whys, of American intervention.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I thought the best example of a way to handle a situation was East Timor, when we provided logistical support to the Australians, support that only we can provide. I thought that was a good model. But we can’t be all things to all people in the world, Jim. And I think that’s where maybe the Vice President and I begin to have some differences. I’m worried about over committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission. And it was not very successful. It cost us a couple billions of dollars and I’m not sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Like it or not, we are now…the United States is now the natural leader of the world. All of the other countries are looking to us. Now just because we cannot be involved everywhere, and shouldn’t be, doesn’t mean that we should shy away from going in anywhere. And we have a fundamental choice to make. Are we going to step up to the plate as a nation, the way we did after World War II, the way that generation of heroes said, okay, the United States is going to be the leader — and the world benefited tremendously from the courage that they showed in those post-war years.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be. We can help. And maybe it’s just our difference in government, the way we view government. I mean I want to empower people. I want to help people help themselves, not have government tell people what to do. I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you.

RAY SUAREZ: And now to assess all this are three foreign affairs columnists: Jim Hoagland of the “Washington Post,” Trudy Rubin of the “Philadelphia Inquirer,” and Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of “Foreign Affairs” Magazine and contributing editor of “Newsweek.”

Well, Jim Hoagland, after last night’s confrontation, do you come away with a pretty good idea of what a Gore foreign policy is and what a Bush foreign policy is?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think it was a very informative exchange. I think we had a sense that both of these men are internationalists, they’re both committed to an American presence in the world, and using American power to defend national interests. I think in the excerpts that you’ve just shown, you do get a sense that Vice President Gore has a somewhat more optimistic view of history and of the use of American power abroad to change things. And he’s more willing to be engaged in different places. Whereas, Governor Bush sounded a more traditional Republican theme of using power really only when you really have to, and then using it in a big way.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, what did you make of last night’s confrontation?

TRUDY RUBIN: I was really surprised that the differences between the two men didn’t come out more strongly. In fact, given that Governor Bush’s probable future national security advisor Condolezza Rice, if he’s elected, has said that we should not be 911 for the world, I was surprised that the Governor agreed with practically all of the interventions that were listed for him by the moderator. And the only one he didn’t, Haiti, was not really nation building as a domestic intervention to keep refugees off of our shores. So it’s still not clear to me what the Governor’s principle is for intervention, and I thought that Vice President Gore also muddied his thesis, and in a sense, didn’t sound- that0 different from Governor Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, Fareed Zakaria.

FAREED ZAKARIA: First I think the prize should go to Jim Lehrer for having that extraordinary exchange on national television. It was probably the most informative exchange about foreign policy that I’ve seen in a presidential campaign for a decade. I think if Lehrer won, the runner up decisively was Bush because his answers were simple, direct, tough, straightforward. Vice President Gore seemed oddly sort of wishy-washy. He went into long historical asides. There was something almost tentative, oddly tentative about a man who knows so much about foreign policy, whereas Bush came across much firmer, I thought, and had a sort of simple commonsensical line about most of the interventions, most of the issues that were being discussed. Gore seemed almost on the defensive, occasionally agreeing occasionally being slightly different but Bush set the agenda, even on foreign policy and that’s remarkable.

RAY SUAREZ: Were there turning points in the conversation where you heard things that just didn’t match your knowledge of various international situations or where the candidates seemed not to understand all that was involved in assessing?

FAREED ZAKARIA: No, I thought it was a fairly intelligent discussion in that sense. I didn’t think there were any real gaffes on either side. I think as Jim Hoagland said, they were true to form in the sense that Bush represented more the kind of hard headed Republican school, and Gore seemed a little bit more values-based and somewhat more optimistic or idealistic. But basically it was an intelligent discussion with a very broad area of agreement.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin when the conversation moved away from the very easily grasped, do we send troops, do we not send troops sort of conversation to things like the use of international financial institution, the granting of foreign aid, did the conversation take a turn for you? Did it become more diffused, more incisive?

TRUDY RUBIN: No, I don’t think… There was talk about reforming the IMF, but nothing specific was discussed. There were generalities thrown out on foreign aid. But actually just to come back to the question of intervention, I mean what surprised me a lot is that there should be, if you take what the advisors say, real differences between these two men.

And the question is what do you do about intervention in the murky areas? And that’s something that was never illuminated. Neither man talked about the role of the United Nations, whether there should be support for any kind of standing force or standing units. There was very vague talk about regional groups and Governor Bush talked about Nigerians going into Rwanda, or being used in a situation like Rwanda which was never in the cards. Nigerians would just be used in West Africa, if then. So nothing about those many cases of small wars, which are going to come up in the future, and who is supposed to do the dirty work.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim Hoagland do you agree with Trudy Rubin that this is an area of high contrast where we didn’t get to see that on display?

JIM HOAGLAND: Well, I think both men achieved the objectives they set out and that affected to some extent what they were able to do. Vice President Gore, I think, succeeded in reducing his negatives picked up from the first debate, and Governor Bush certainly showed a command of foreign affairs that I think surprised a lot of people.

He dealt well with general themes. He dealt well with the ideas that put Gore on the defensive on Russia and on intervention, and that surprised people because Governor Bush had been mugged on a foreign policy quiz journalistically earlier in the campaign. The one surprising moment for me was when Governor Bush started talking about debt relief for third world countries.

This is not a traditional Republican theme. And I think what he was trying to do there and succeeded to some extent, was to show that he is a different kind of Republican; that he is a compassionate person. He did not lay out, nor did Vice President Gore lay out, any specifics on that. Neither of them have really addressed in the campaign the bit changes you have to make in international financial institutions before you can have effective debt relief. But at least the Governor was trying to say, I’m different on this score. And I think that Vice President Gore didn’t really respond on a number of those points.

The one area that I thought Vice President Gore could have done better in, too, was in drawing the contrast on intervention in Bosnia, where he asked a question. Governor Bush responded really with his support for Kosovo, rather than on the question of intervention in Bosnia in the early 90’s, when Dick Cheney was the Secretary of Defense, and went along with a non-intervention policy. I thought that the Vice President could have done a better job perhaps in nailing that down.

RAY SUAREZ: There was also an intimation, or appeared to be, perhaps in the press of answering the questions they didn’t clarify this enough, the Governor seemed to imply that there were a lot of Americans in both Kosovo and Bosnia and that the United States was carrying the weight almost on its own, and this didn’t get clarified. Trudy Rubin?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that’s a very interesting point because it brings me to what I thought was one of the more interesting phrases that came up in this debate, and it was humility. Governor Bush talked about America needing to have more humility. That I think comes from something that General Brent Scowcroft said during the Republican Convention here in Philadelphia about America being seen as too arrogant and too unilateral. And I would I have loved to have seen that fleshed out because if the Republicans are not interested in a unilateral, an arrogant America, what exactly does that mean in terms of working with allies? You brought up troops in Bosnia and Kosovo. If America would pull out its troops, which are less than the Europeans have there, then the Europeans would be extremely unhappy. If America went forward with national missile defense, the Europeans would be unhappy. They’re unhappy about non-payment of U.N. dues. When Governor Bush talked about humility, a theme picked up by the Vice President, I really would have loved to know what he meant by a more humble America being required.

RAY SUAREZ: Fareed Zakaria, did you take note of the use of humility and the agreement by the Vice President?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I did. It was one of many areas where they agreed. But again I think what was interesting that Bush set the agenda. And what he said I think Trudy is right, was quite interesting because it isn’t a traditional Republican theme, certainly not in Congress. Congress is failing unilaterally, certainly on the Republican side more so than the Democratic side. But this I think comes from his father and his father’s administration. If you look at the Bush administration, it was a very multilateral foreign policy. It was a foreign policy that dealt with allies all the time, consistently, engaged them, Jim Baker managed to assemble that extraordinary coalition in the Gulf War. In fact Clinton used to sort of parody Bush for spending time in the White House telephoning his buddy, Helmut Kohl and people like that. But I think that there is something there.

George Bush — George W. Bush seems to believe that the Clinton administration has been too arrogant, too assertive in sort of trumpeting America’s economic might, trumpeting America’s military might. The Secretary of State has called the United States the indispensable nation. The Secretary of Treasury has gone around to countries like Japan and lectured them on how they should run their economies. And I think there is a sense in the Bush camp that this has been counterproductive and that given America’s extraordinary power in the world, one of the key dangers is producing a backlash to that power. So I think it’s a more general feeling than one directed at any particular policy, but I do think it derives from the elder Bush.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you see any indication, Jim Hoagland, that a George W. Bush administration would be less interventionist, given his stated support for many of America’s overseas activities in the last 20 years, even while he was saying I don’t want to be the world’s policeman?

JIM HOAGLAND: Not much. There were indications that he would try to put pressure on the Europeans to do more in the Balkans, although they’re doing about 80% of the financing and the majority of the troops in the Balkans are now Europeans, of course. I don’t think he would preside over a retreat from abroad, and I think the real importance of this whole campaign and the debate last night is that we see that there is no strain, no important strain of isolationism in the American politics today.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all very much.