The entire world was watching the United States on 7 November, curious to see what would happen and who would be leading the world's most influential country for the next four years. The presidential race had been much too close to call even for experienced pollsters and pundits, and the scale of partisan balance in the two houses of Congress appeared ready to tip in either direction. Overall, it was a day of tension and anticipation for all involved; but few were ready for the massive confusion that stemmed from the tightness of the races.
For analytical purposes, let us assume that Bush somehow squeaks out the win. How would a Bush presidency affect the region of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)?
For many analysts, his election would certainly be seen as a negative sign. Looking at his father's presidency and at his set of advisors, many close to ex-President George Herbert Walker Bush, this view is surely justified. Bush's rhetoric during the campaign only enhanced that negative sense.
Many feel that Gore, with all his faults, would have kept some form of a status quo in foreign policy, especially for Central and Eastern Europe. Gore's likely foreign policy team was expected to feature Balkans trouble-shooter Dick Holbrooke as secretary of state and long-time foreign policy advisor Leon Fuerth as national security advisor. Both individuals have been long concerned with CEE and have extensive experience with the region.
A troubling team
The Bush team, on the other hand, is more troubling. Many of his advisors are from the old Bush camp, and include those involved in the "Chicken Kiev" fiasco in which Bush championed the unity of the USSR; those partly responsible for the shamefully slow reaction to the Lithuanian campaign for freedom (which caused a well-documented near-fistfight in the Oval Office between cabinet officials); and those who told Bush to tell the world he ended the Cold War.
Ex-Secretary of State James Baker is still around. This is the man who personified the shameful Baltic policies of the Bush presidency, and he is, in fact, now the man delegated by the new Bush camp to oversee the Florida recount. Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft remained an advisor of Bush on foreign affairs and has publicly expressed opinions against NATO enlargement.
However, most worrisome is the possible Bush foreign policy team. First of all, a likely candidate for secretary of state is Colin Powell, the military leader from the Gulf War era. Powell is well respected as a soldier and is liked by both sides of the political divide, but his credentials are far more military than diplomatic—two things, many argue, that do not mix. Powell has been critical of various aspects of Clinton's policy in Europe, questioning, for example, the recognition of the independence of some countries as, in Powell's view, it is often only a prelude to conflict.
Even more harrying is the possible appointment of Bush's main foreign policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, as national security advisor (and it is worthwhile noting that the post of national security advisor does not require Senate confirmation, unlike the secretary of state position). Rice was a major advisor to Bush Senior on Soviet affairs, and that policy was a dark mark in the 1990s for Washington. Rice has gone on to make other comments that have turned her into one of the biggest enemies of the Baltic communities in the US, as well as others.
Rice also recently caused an international uproar over a piece in The New York Times that suggested Bush would pull US forces out of the Balkans upon becoming president, a comment that irritated America's NATO allies. The Bush camp was also slow in explaining the comment, which, for a while, gave Gore a few good campaign days on foreign policy issues.
Such bumbling of a vital issue is much more severe than Bush's notion that "Grecians" live in Greece or his public accusation of ex-Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, in which he alleged the former premier was involved in corruption related to IMF and World Bank funds. Diplomacy anyone?
How open the door?
The vital issue of NATO enlargement is likely to be in question, despite some assurance from the Bush camp—including Dick Cheney—of the continuation of the "open-door" policy. Bush, however, could play hardball with Russia, in contrast to the cosy relationship Gore has built with Moscow. Whether that would accelerate any enlargement of NATO is questionable, especially if bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow cool. Rice is a Russian expert, but many of Bush's comments seem to come from a less-than-well-versed source, which brings up concerns about Bush's experience and lack of hard knowledge on global issues.
Of course, the peacekeeping issue is another major potential headache, as a unilateral pullout by the US would create confusion, especially in post-election Kosovo and its unsteady neighbour, which most the world have already been blinded into thinking is democratic and free. Such a move to withdraw from Europe could damage the trans-Atlantic relationship that has been growing since the departure of DeGaulle from Paris. Moreover, the Bush camp has also been critical of the EU's developing defence arm, accusing it of being a way to undermine NATO. Contradictions abound, and such uncertainty and unpredictability will be a problem for CEE in the coming years.
The close Congressional fight
Despite the closeness and excitement of the presidential race, the contest for 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats was watched carefully by everyone. The Republicans held slight majorities in both chambers—four in the Senate and seven in the House. The Democrats had a shot at taking both houses, though the odds were against them. Most pundits believed the results would be a shrinking of the margins for the Republicans in both houses, but with the GOP retaining slight control of both, and that is apparently the result.
With all House seats up and most contested by a sitting incumbent, not many surprises were expected in those smaller races, and, indeed, there have been few very big surprises. A handful of incumbents were defeated, but the net balance of seats did not shift as dramatically as some suspected it would.
The most significant defeat was for Connecticut Democrat Sam Gejdenson, the ranking Democrat in the International Relations Committee. Gejdenson, who has won a few squeakers in past elections, finally fell—perhaps for being out of touch with his constituency and spending too much time on foreign relations issues. With this, the House loses one of its strongest foreign affairs leaders. If the Democrats had taken the House, this would have been more significant, as Gejdenson would have lost the chance to become the Committee's chairman.
As of this writing, the balance in the House has shifted by only a few seats, giving the Republicans a likely majority of just a few seats over the 218 needed. However, that is a razor-thin majority, which places a lot of pressure on the whips in both parties to make sure votes do not fail due to one or two absent members or undisciplined voting. Possibilities of defections, either unsolicited or tampered ones, could become an issue in the next two years as well.
Republicans also have to watch out for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the outspoken libertarian who will not vote for a bill if he deems it not to be directly sanctioned by the Constitution—even if it is a key Republican item. A margin of a handful of seats is very small, and managers and leaders of both parties will have to be very careful to not cause any upsets in voting.
The Senate, on the other hand, had 34 seats up for grabs this year. Several weak Republican seats were targeted by Democrats, while the two sides fought tooth and nail for several seats vacated by Democrats due to retirement. Most of the campaign's attention was on the New York race between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, though the First Lady pulled off a clear victory in that race. Clinton, well versed in foreign affairs and having significant involvement with CEE, should be a new force in the Senate.
Another of the strange races came in Missouri, where incumbent Republican John Ashcroft, a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, faced off in an impossible situation against the late Governor Mel Carnahan. Carnahan died in a plane crash in October, and the new governor of the state has said he would appoint Carnahan's widow, Jean, to the post if the late governor were to win the vote. Amidst acrimonious voting, accusations of illegal extended opening of St Louis polling stations and court challenges that evening, Ashcroft conceded the race and called on his followers to not challenge it in court—something some Republicans threatened to do, questioning the validity of electing a deceased person.
The Democrats pulled off big holds in New Jersey and Nebraska, and took Republican seats in Florida, Minnesota, Michigan and Delaware (defeating six-term Senator William Roth, head of the Finance Committee). It would have been a great night for them if they had not lost the states of Nevada and Virginia to the Republicans.
This gives the Senate a shift of three seats. With the Washington state race between incumbent Republican Senator Slade Gorton (one of the strongest Baltic advocates in the Senate) and former Democratic Congresswoman Maria Cantwell still undecided, it is not known whether the balance in the Senate will be 51-49 for the Republicans, or a 50-50 split. However, it is certain that the GOP will remain in control of the Senate by the slightest of margins, since a 50-50 split would result in the vice-president breaking the tie, and our assumption here is that Bush will take the White House. Dick Cheney, Bush's running mate, will vote Republican, obviously.
Even if Gore had won the presidency, it would still have not resulted in a turnover of control, since his vice presidential candidate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, made the controversial decision to run simultaneously for re-election in Connecticut (where he won). If he had become vice-president, he would have had to resign his Senate seat, and the appointment would go to Connecticut's governor, a Republican, and it would have been a Republican pick-up.
The keys to the committees
Republican control of the Senate means control of committees, including the pivotal Appropriations and Foreign Affairs committees. Powerful Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, a great friend of the Armenian and Ukrainian lobby on account of his delivery on the Foreign Operations budget every year (reciprocated by many fundraisers for the Kentucky Senator outside of his state and constituents), remains in control of that process much to the relief of the lobbies. Confirmation of ambassadorial candidates remains at the whim of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who held up several appointments during the Clinton administration despite a good rapport with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
However, a Bush presidency is not likely to give Helms many problems, though the Democrats could become more critical of the appointments. Issues such as UN reform could reappear with vigour if Helms decides to pick a fight with New York again.
The Senate also needs to approve all treaties with a two-thirds majority, including any changes to NATO; enlargement for each and every country, if it comes, needs to be approved by 67 Senators at least—something that is less than certain with a host of Senators, such as Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, hostile to CEE in general.
The enlargement issue is decidedly less popular now that Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary—all with large communities in America—are in NATO. Frankly, there are far fewer people in the Slovak, Slovene and Lithuanian communities around the country to garner such widespread support for enlargement without active encouragement from the White House. If Bush fails to really champion enlargement, there will be little impetus from the Senate.
CEE in the next cycle
There was a time when the idea of Republican control of both congressional chambers and the presidency would have brought immense joy to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe; however, that is a Cold War memory. During the Cold War, the Republicans consistently championed the region in its crusade against Communism. The post-Cold War Republicans, though, appear to have gone back to their old habits of isolationism and talking more about a national missile defence system than an active presence in Europe and the world.
Issues such as NATO enlargement and continual engagement in European trouble spots are likely to drop in priority. Changes will not be drastic, though the eight-year-long Clinton trend of continual engagement with Europe, ranging from peacekeeping to NATO enlargement, may lose its momentum or fade.
The ethnic lobbies in the United States lost much of their steam after the initial round of NATO enlargement. Though the Polish community in particular continues to heavily advocate further NATO enlargement—with heavyweights such as Zbigniew Brzezinski speaking out on the matter—the issue is not likely to carry as much weight as membership for Poland did several years back.
The Baltic communities in the US, especially Lithuanians, are working closely with the Polish community on the NATO question to push for some commitment by both parties on further enlargement in 2002. However, with half
The lessons of the Armenian community may be useful to remember here, as well. The Armenian community was, in a way, double-crossed by the Republicans when House Speaker Dennis Hastert killed a resolution on the Armenian Genocide which was intended to put pressure on NATO ally Turkey. The Armenian community is one of the strongest political groups in the country, with especially strong pockets in California and New Jersey. But such issues do not have the strength that the NATO debate did during the 1996 election, with Clinton and former Senator Bob Dole both vying for the Polish and ethnic vote in the Midwest.
Untried, but also unknown
However, anything can happen in a Bush presidency. When Clinton was first elected, he had little experience with foreign policy and many people dreaded his election—though it was preferable to the shameful Soviet policy pursued by Bush Senior. Bush Senior's appointment of Strobe Talbott as deputy secretary of state had irked some who considered him a Russia-lover, but Talbott surprised many by evolving into a fair and active diplomat with a string of policy successes in CEE.
The replacement of Warren Christopher as secretary of state by Madeleine Albright was also a successful move for CEE implications, especially in light of her cosy relationship with the intensely partisan Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Various appointments such as the naming of Ron Asmus as assistant deputy secretary of state (especially responsible for the Baltics) was also beneficial for CEE. So, anything can still happen, and the coming months will prove to be an exciting, and nervous, time for Central and Eastern Europe.
And, of course, the fat lady has not sung a note, yet. Legal challenges could delay the official announcement of presidential results, or, perhaps, even overturn them. Controversies abound and not just in Florida. As Vice President Gore said he would not concede the election until all issues were addressed, this is likely to spark an intensely partisan war of words and courtroom battles across the country. It will not be over until the winner, whether it is the likely Bush or the underdog Gore, takes the oath of office next year.
Mel Huang, 10 November 2000
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