WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Bill Clinton and Al Gore may be gone, but the leaders of the Democrat Party can still read public opinion polls. The latest surveys of President George W. Bush's first 100 days in office show that the American people overwhelmingly approve of the way he's handling his job.
These polls apparently motivated House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, oft mentioned as a potential nominee for the his party's presidential hopes in 2004, to see if he could find a chink in the president's armor. Attacks on Bush's tax relief, education and faith-based initiatives haven't blunted the president's popularity, so Gephardt resorted to attacks on the administration's foreign policy.
When the Bush administration announced this week that Taiwan would be allowed to purchase the largest and most sophisticated array of defensive weapons since George Bush the Elder sold them 150 F-16 jets in 1992, Gephardt raced for the microphones and cameras. Seemingly distraught that President George W. Bush had decided to "defer" the sale of Arleigh Burke Class destroyers with their advanced radar and battle management systems, Gephardt suddenly became the democratic island's most fervent defender.
"With the sizable buildup of military forces on the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait, I have serious questions regarding the Bush administration's decision not to provide destroyers equipped with advanced command and control systems to Taiwan," the minority leader whined. And then, with a perfectly straight face, he added that "provocative acts" by the communist Chinese mandated making the Aegis-equipped ships available "without delay."
Unfortunately, the masters of the media covering this diatribe, and relishing the resumption of partisan warfare in Washington, failed to ask the relevant questions of the minority leader. Questions like: "Do you know that the earliest we could deliver the Aegis systems 'without delay' would be 2009?"
Or reporters might have asked: "Where were you for eight long years while Bill Clinton was bending over backward to appease Beijing?" They could have inquired: "If defending the little island's 22 million souls is such a high priority for you, Gephardt, why didn't you complain last year when the Clinton administration turned a deaf ear to their request for submarines to defend against growing threats by the People's Liberation Navy?"
Someone might have asked: "Did it occur to you that selling Taiwan the Aegis systems -- some of the most sophisticated weaponry available today -- would be like giving flying lessons in the Space Shuttle?"
But these questions were not asked. And given Gephardt's history, one can only conclude that raw partisan politics is what inspired him to attack as "inadequate" the current sale which includes, among other things: four Kidd-Class destroyers (originally built for the Shah of Iran -- and which can be delivered in as little as 2 years); 12 P-3C Orion maritime surveillance/sub-hunter aircraft (which were the first planes to patrol the skies in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait); eight conventional-powered submarines; Mk 48 torpedoes, which are designed to combat both surface ships and deep-diving subs; Paladin, self-propelled artillery systems; MH-53E minesweeping helicopters -- designed for land or sea-based operations and which is the U.S. military's most powerful helicopter; AAV7A1 Amphibious Assault Vehicles; the mobile and lightweight Avenger surface-to-air missile systems; and advanced survivability equipment for Taiwan's F-16's.
The Taiwan Relations Act, which became law on April 10, 1979, mandates that the U.S. "provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character" and "maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan."
Apparently in his rush to criticize the Bush administration, Gephardt overlooked a Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report prepared by James Doran titled "U.S. Defense Policy Toward Taiwan: In Need of an Overhaul." The report concludes: "... the most important item for Taiwan's navy, indeed for Taiwan's entire military, is the acquisition of submarines. China maintains an overwhelming 65-4 advantage in submarines over Taiwan. Two of Taiwan's submarines are WWII-era Guppy class boats, which are unsuitable for combat."
The "arms package" that the Bush administration has agreed to sell Taiwan redresses these deficiencies. Further, unlike his predecessors -- even his own father -- George W. Bush has put communist China on notice that it risks war with the United States if the People's Liberation Army attempts an invasion of Taiwan.
The arms sale decision was made quickly and decisively within the first 100 days of a new administration. Given the PRC's aggressive military buildup, getting Taiwan good systems now is more important than getting them the best systems later. Or, as we used to say in the Marines, "Perfect is the enemy of good enough."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes it. Most people on both sides of the aisle in Congress like it, and the Taiwanese are happy with it. So who's unhappy about this arms sale? The Butchers in Beijing don't like it -- they filed an official protest. And then there's Dick Gephardt. George W. Bush must be doing something right.