TO understand President Clinton and his foreign policy, or his lack of foreign policy, one must remember that he is a domestic-affairs president. It isn't merely that he was elected to deal with pressing domestic problems. It's more a feeling Mr. Clinton seems to have that the American people don't want a president who is entangling the nation abroad.
Paul D. Wolfowitz, dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in Foreign Affairs that Clinton has ``failed to articulate an understanding of the national interests sufficiently compelling to engage major efforts by the country as a whole, or by the president personally, in international affairs.'' To this criticism the president would appear to be replying: ``My concept rests on what I see as the current will of the people, which is noninvolvement if at all possible.''
That would explain what some critics see in the president's vacillation in Somalia, Haiti, North Korea, and particularly Bosnia. What many are calling indecisiveness Clinton sees as stepping back from too much involvement, the kind he believes the people as a whole oppose, especially if it would take his focus off of such problems as crime, health care, welfare, and, above all, the economy.
Is Clinton an isolationist-prone president? Not really. He is a chief executive who, more than anything else, is an extraordinarily good politician. He is an expert at keeping his ear to the ground, picking up trends in voter thinking, and reacting quickly to public desires.
That ``political ear'' served him well as governor. It helped him bring about a comeback after being ousted following his first term. Then by being highly attentive to the voters he racked up a record five terms in Little Rock.
Observers generally are giving the president good grades for his recent venture abroad. Those of us who watched on television saw a Bill Clinton who looked very much like he did along the campaign trail: a most engaging fellow who is quite persuasive with one-on-one or when talking to groups. He seemed to be winning over the leaders he met as well as those members of the general public with whom he talked and mingled. Clinton's conversation with Syria's Hafez al-Assad may have helped to move the Middle East process along.
That's all to the good. Perhaps that's precisely what our president should be doing now: providing encouragement, hope, and promise of aid to those countries that are struggling to accept democracy and shape it to their needs. Further, it is important that a new United States president become acquainted with the world's leaders.
But the visit was more a campaign trip; Clinton is a president who really campaigns constantly wherever he goes. This isn't really bad. It's merely a description of a presidential style. Without this campaigning - his day-and-night personal inveigling of members of Congress - it's fair to say he would never have gotten his budget or the North American Free Trade Agreement approved.
The president does have his finger on public thinking when he sees that what might be called neo-isolationism has taken over in this country. It's nothing like the old-time, go-it-alone isolationism of the 1930s. It is not saying goodbye to the need for a new world order or to the US playing a vital role in such an order.
But plenty of polls show conclusively that the public today certainly disapproves of the US being a world policeman. Further, there is growing public resistance to the funneling of funds abroad that could be used for dealing with pressing domestic problems.
This leaves a president, who, if he is to be responsive to this public attitude when he goes swimming in foreign affairs, may wade a bit but has to keep away from getting too immersed.
That's what Clinton was doing abroad: winning points for bettering relations while staying away from hard commitments that would possibly involve sending US troops to the rescue.