Why Foreign Policy Gets No Respect

To know the facts could be to love the plan

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"Unpopular actions to advance US security and prosperity."

This is how the Clinton campaign recently categorized the administration's main achievements in Latin America and the Caribbean. These included US military intervention in Haiti to restore President Aristide, efforts for congressional passage of NAFTA, and the 1995 multibillion-dollar loan to prevent Mexico's financial collapse.

Each of these initiatives did advance US interests - and those of Mexico and Haiti as well. And all three were unpopular.

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This is not encouraging - either for the future of US-Latin America relations or for US foreign affairs generally. Policy actions that are mutually beneficial to the US and other countries should surely win the support of the American people.

All of these policies deserved such support. None was particularly partisan. NAFTA was an initiative of President Bush. Although Republicans in Congress opposed military action in Haiti, the Clinton White House had, up to that point, largely pursued a policy course set in the Bush administration. And GOP leadership strongly supported Clinton's plan to lend Mexico the money to avoid financial catastrophe.

None of these policies carried a very high cost. Understandably, Americans do not like to send their troops overseas, but in Haiti the US suffered no battlefield casualties. Indeed, the US reached an agreement with Haiti's military rulers allowing the troops to enter the country unopposed. Every serious study of NAFTA - before or after the treaty was in force - concluded that both nations would benefit economically. The loans to Mexico were guaranteed by its oil reserves and are being paid back on an accelerated timetable.

Each initiative has brought clear gains to the US. Haiti is hardly the striking success that the administration has claimed, but the flow of boat people to Florida - the central concern of US policy - has come to a halt; political murders and other human rights abuses have dropped to historically low levels; and other political repression has diminished, even as economic and social hardship continues unabated.

The combination of NAFTA and US loans to buttress the Mexican peso kept a healthy commerce going between the two countries, despite Mexico's devastating economic downturn.

Finally, these policies were all widely endorsed in the hemisphere and internationally. The Haiti action was sanctioned by the UN Security Council. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and International Bank of Settlements joined the US in the peso rescue effort. And negotiations toward NAFTA helped spark the development of other subregional free-trade arrangements in the Americas.

If these initiatives are unpopular, it is hard to imagine how the US can develop a sustained, constructive relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean, or a coherent policy toward the rest of the world.

It may be that the American people have become increasingly distrustful of international "entanglements." But it may also be that they are not being given the opportunity to make informed judgments.

The debates over Haiti, NAFTA, and Mexico badly distorted the facts. Proponents overstated the benefits of action and the price of delay. Opponents embellished the costs. Over time, the arguments became progressively less grounded in reality.

The outcome was predictable: Both exaggerated fears and expectations about the initiatives. And distortions on both sides continue - regarding the success or failure of the Haiti intervention, and the costs, benefits, and consequences of NAFTA and the Mexican loans.

Unpopular decisions must be made at times, but the US cannot have a sound, long-term foreign policy without the support of the American people. That support, at minimum, demands a more serious discussion of foreign policy issues than we have had so far this year from President Clinton, Bob Dole, or anyone else.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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