Cleaning the Augean stables

Posted: Mar 22, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Week nine of the Bush presidency was a doozy. The economy continued to contract like a black hole in outer space. The equities markets rebuffed master micro-manager Alan Greenspan's third interest rate cut since January. The nation's energy woes were exacerbated by OPEC crude oil production cuts and rolling "greenouts" in electricity-starved California. In the Balkans, where we still have 10,000 troops, Macedonia mobilized its reserves to fend off a virtual invasion of paramilitary Albanians from neighboring Kosovo. To top it off, two of the most intractable problems created and abandoned by the previous administration rolled into town within two days of each other in the persons of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and communist Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen. While no official has said so publicly, several of my sources in the new administration are frustrated that these residual problems from the Clinton-Gore era are interfering with the Bush-Cheney domestic and foreign-policy agendas. And while George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are too polite to say so, their aides are right. Despite efforts by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to blame the economic downturn on Bush and Cheney, everyone knows, whether they admit it or not, that the slow-down began last year. If this is a recession, it's the Clinton recession -- but rather than address the economic stimulus of a major tax cut that's already passed the House, the Senate has taken a two-week frolic discussing how to guarantee incumbent re-election through "campaign finance reform." Californians complain that Cheney's "Energy Task Force" isn't solving their electrical power plight. But the nation's energy crisis didn't start on the day George W. Bush was inaugurated. It's been gathering momentum since Al Gore began using his manifesto, "Earth in the Balance," and the Kyoto Treaty as excuses for not developing a coherent national energy policy. At the outset of the Balkan war, Bill Clinton said we had a "moral obligation" to bomb Kosovo to rubble and dispatch U.S. and NATO troops to "protect and defend" the resident Albanian population from "genocide" at the hands of Yugoslav security forces. Now, Bush administration plans to start a phased withdrawal of our troops in the Balkans have been complicated by "helpless" Kosovar Albanians who have virtually invaded neighboring Macedonia. Having figured out how to get us into the Balkans, apparently no one in the Clinton administration thought of how to get us out. Rather than biting his lip or whining about the problems left by his predecessor, George W. Bush has confronted each issue in a low-key, almost methodical manner. For example, on the eve of his meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Sharon, Yassir Arafat's supporters in the United Nations proposed a UN peacekeeping force take up arms in the West Bank. When a Bangladesh representative introduced the resolution, acting U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham quietly killed the idea, saying, "The United States won't support it." President Bush took the same approach during Tuesday's meeting with Sharon and Thursday's session with communist China's Vice Premier Qian. Eschewing the Clinton approach of bluster, ultimatums and spin for the benefit of the Nobel Prize committee, Bush used the talks to quietly lay out his positions. The Sharon-Bush meeting starkly contrasted with those which Ehud Barak was forced to endure. Absent was Washington's most frequent foreign visitor during the last administration -- Yassir Arafat. Gone was the effort to use the Israeli Prime Minister like a puppet, forcing smiles and handshakes so Clinton could bask in the glow of the media's klieg lights. Instead, Bush simply assured Israel's 11th democratically elected prime minister that "our nation will not try to force peace ... we will facilitate peace. We will work with those responsible for peace." That same level-headed, businesslike Bush approach was also evident in Thursday's meeting with Vice Premier Qian -- his first with a senior communist Chinese official. Bush clarified that a U.S. decision to sell AEGIS-equipped guided missile destroyers armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles and other advanced defensive weapons to Taiwan would depend on whether Beijing continued to rattle their sabers. The despots in mainland China may not like what they heard, but at least they know where we stand. It's going to take a while to clean up Clinton's mess. But there is a model. In ancient Greek mythology, Hercules was tasked with cleaning the Augean stables. According to legend, the structure housed a large herd of cattle and had not been cleaned for years. The mythic hero had to divert the course of two rivers to cleanse the building of accumulated, wel, manure. Unfortunately for Bush, the Sierra Club and Green Peace would protest the diversion of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers to wash out the accumulated effluent left behind by his predecessor. But that just means cleaning up after Bill Clinton will take a little longer.