Will Voters Buy Into Dole's Criticism Of Clinton's Foreign-Policy Record?

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As Bob Dole pursues a scorched-earth campaign to chasten President Clinton on domestic issues and White House foibles, Mr. Clinton's foreign policy and world leadership could provide the margin of victory in November.

Clinton has successfully removed "the economy" as a compelling issue from the political debate. Aside from providing a modicum of comfort and relief for the majority of working Americans, the relatively robust economy has forced Mr. Dole to resort to a litany of evanescent issues surrounding Clinton's character, judgment, and management of White House political affairs.

In addition to the undertow of innuendo surrounding the persistent Whitewater saga, a new maelstrom was created by the administration's admitted bungling of what should have been routine security procedures and the mishandling of FBI background files. Dole hopes these issues, combined with snickering about the first lady's new-age philosophy and recurring speculation on presidential philandering, will help him win the White House in November.

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But now, perhaps recognizing the inherent vacuousness of these arguments, Dole also has taken to criticizing the president on foreign policy. Prompted by his chief foreign policy campaign adviser, Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain, Dole has castigated Clinton for such things as mismanaging relations with Japan, Korea, and China; failing to appreciate the security concerns of Eastern Europe; and relying too heavily on the forces of reform in Russia as a substitute for a more-reliable security bulwark such as NATO expansion. And of course, Dole lambastes Clinton for a hesitant, limp strategy on Bosnia.

Dole avers that Clinton lacks an all-encompassing world-view or grand strategy. He says the administration's priorities are topsy-turvy, with issues such as human rights, trade imbalances, the environment, and global population occupying center stage in lieu of hard-core security issues.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Senator McCain writes: "Many of the president's self-proclaimed successes - in Bosnia, Haiti, and North Korea, for instance - amounted to little more than a partial recovery from the damage to our national credibility he had previously inflicted in those areas."

McCain further notes: "[T]wo genuine successes, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade were achieved precisely because the Clinton administration avoided the conceptual and operational mistakes that have bedeviled most of its policies." On Dole's behalf, McCain makes his boldest assertion: "The Clinton administration has left the United States less secure today than when President George Bush left office. The president's mismanagement of this highest priority is the most persuasive reason for electing a new commander-in-chief this November."

This is strong and unabashedly partisan dictum, writ large for a contentious debate on American foreign policy in an election year. But the question remains as to whether American voters will buy into the Dole portrait - or caricature as it were - of Clinton's foreign-policy performance. Manifest from Dole's foreign-policy gambit is the hope and belief that American voters will embrace his view that the US somehow suffers a less-than-superpower status as a direct result of Clinton's soft leadership in foreign affairs.

But Dole should be careful not to place too much stock in such a strategy. As Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle points out: "In the post-cold-war era, the foreign-policy debate is largely consigned to the periphery and engaged in by policymakers and members of the media elite."

Dole also should remember the old adage: "Be careful for what you wish; you just might get it." Should the American electorate focus on foreign policy as a significant issue in the 1996 campaign, as the Dole campaign seems to hope it will, Clinton could emerge with even stronger marks than either the Republicans or Democrats anticipate.

Dole has been criticized for his lack of a coherent domestic campaign theme, but he could end up short on the foreign-policy measuring stick as well. Here's why:

Presidential leadership. While the Dole campaign continues to focus on Clinton's lack of leadership domestically and internationally, Clinton continues to operate on the world stage as a quintessential world leader.

The attributes Americans come to associate with Clinton's handling of foreign affairs - even if few - will be compared in stark contrast with Bob Dole's sideline carping. Meanwhile, G-7 leaders have expressed confidence in Clinton and have all but endorsed his reelection.

Borrowing from the Gipper's playbook. Ronald Reagan taught the Democrats that Americans like to feel good about their role in the world - however minimal or isolationist that turns out to be. Clinton can, and should, take credit for making voters feel good about their role in the world by delineating a string of positive developments - from the Middle East peace process to the reformist victory in Russia - that have been in the US's best interest.

All politics is local. As Dole endeavors to drive a wedge between domestic and international policy issues, Clinton can point to the beneficial intersection of domestic- and foreign-policy objectives. By highlighting a few persuasive indicators such as a declining foreign-trade balance and increased exports, the president can underscore the success of his foreign policy in stark US employment terms. Expanding markets abroad have increased manufacturing opportunities at home, resulting in local jobs for many American voters.

Naturally, Dole will rely on his strengths: service to the country in World War II, three decades of service in Congress, and capable political leadership skills. The demographics of the election, however, do not augur well for a World War II veteran and Washington fixture. As baby boomers continue to assert electoral muscle, followed closely by Generation Xers, Dole's more-admirable attributes become less understood and even less appreciated.

When Dole focuses on foreign-policy issues in this campaign, he should expect the unexpected. In 1996, foreign policy may be one of the few issues where politics and policy part ways.

*Adonis Hoffman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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