Foreign Policy: Imperative

You know the middle portion of the book, the boring part you have to get through just to get to the end? That was foreign foreign policy at the presidential debates.

Not that the candidates purposefully pushed it aside or avoided it. Bob Dole raised his concerns about the decline of American leadership in the world. President Clinton, given the opportunity, recounted his administration's foreign-policy themes.

But the candidates rarely lingered on these issues. Both quickly moved on - reflecting, perhaps, the perception that the American public just doesn't relate very well to concerns beyond the border.

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That may be a natural enough tendency. People want to hear about what will affect them directly. Matters like the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan or continued Hutu-Tutsi tensions in Rwanda are far off the screen for most Americans, and to think the candidates would talk about such items is unrealistic.

But in these foreign-policy arenas, as in the more visible dramas of Bosnia or the Middle East, one fact stands out: What the United States says and does, counts. This is the most interconnected nation in the world. And even a spot on the map far from Washington can burst onto the world scene in a way that unmistakably affects Americans. How many of us thought about Somalia before 1993?

Many nations around the world might prefer to go about their international business without the United States, but often they can't. America has the money, manpower, and desire to make a difference. Let's face it, Americans often relish this role. And as exclusive arbiter of this power, the US feels a duty to exercise it.

But when, and how? Washington has long proclaimed human rights a keystone of its foreign policy. But gross violations of rights occur in many parts of the globe. What prompts us to send troops to Bosnia to halt genocidal warfare, but not to Rwanda to combat the same evil? Other factors come into play, such as longstanding economic or geopolitical interests in certain parts of the world.

Every administration brings its own coloration to the mix of interests, alliances, and moral imperatives that should blend into a consistent foreign policy. But even with a strategy in hand, elaborate contingencies surround every crisis or problem. They largely determine the course taken in a situation. No universal law of action applies; no theory or policy blueprint fits every circumstance. Much is left to the interpretation of officials in the White House and State Department.

In recent interviews, Secretary of State Warren Christopher has candidly spoken of the miscalculations that have marred the last four years of Clinton foreign policy. In Mr. Christopher's defense, this has been a particularly turbulent time, dominated by post-cold-war uncertainties.

Maybe a Dole administration would handle the foreign-policy tasks better. Yet very little has come up in the campaign to convince voters it would. During the debates, Mr. Dole sometimes tended to bow to the bipartisan tradition in foreign policy and avoid critiques of ongoing policy. That's admirable, but it must have left some voters wondering what they had to choose between.

The foreign-policy decisions made in the White House can put Americans' lives at risk. They can also create opportunities to save lives, enhance prosperity, and establish peace. Politicians shoulder awesome responsibilities with regard to foreign policy. The person elected on Nov. 5 will do much to determine the course of world events, and those events will affect the lives of everyone.

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