When the presidential candidates are asked to define their foreign policies, the questions eventually zero in on two figures with permanent places in Washington's rogues' gallery: Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.
Typically, questions boil down to how the United States, with its vast resources and influence, can remove from power these two men who so violently violated international norms.
The candidates' answers, at least with regard to Saddam, have started to take shape. Al Gore recently met with members of the Iraqi National Congress and promised his support for toppling Baghdad's dictator. The means, it seems, will be enhanced training for Iraqi opposition forces - with the emphasis on political organization, not military tactics.
George W. Bush's stance, as voiced by his foreign policy advisers, also stresses getting rid of Saddam, possibly by helping the opposition gain control of a piece of the country and building from there.
And Milosevic? The candidates are less clear here, reflecting the complexities of a situation that includes deployed American peacekeeping troops in Kosovo. The Clinton administration, however, is reported to be floating ideas for easing Milosevic out of Belgrade through the promise of a safe haven elsewhere.
This prospect raises grave questions, not least the possible thwarting of the international will to bring the Serb leader, indicted for war crimes in Kosovo, before the tribunal at The Hague. How do Bush and Gore plan to handle the Milosevic dilemma?
Both Yugoslavia and Iraq present thorny options. Milosevic's domestic opponents, like Saddam's, are loud but ineffectual. It's hard to envision a unified move to replace the governments in either place anytime soon.
Moreover, Milosevic has moved to change his national constitution to allow himself another term in office and to cut Montenegro, Serbia's remaining and thoroughly disaffected junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, off from parliamentary power. Saddam has yet again reshuffled the leadership in his ruling Baath Party to further secure his own position.
Milosevic has strengthened his military units in Montenegro, heightening prospects for a crackdown there. Saddam has been testing short-range missiles, raising new concerns about his military dreams.
All of which suggests these two will definitely be on the next president's agenda. It may be politically gratifying to sound off about ways to deal with them by engineering their removal. In practice, it's likely to be a long, demanding process.
Staying the course with Saddam and Milosevic will require the next president to respond forcibly to any Serbian or Iraqi threat against neighbors. He'll also have to employ creative diplomacy to sustain alliances against these dictators. And he'll have to aid opposition forces without undermining their credibility.
This is a delicate challenge. The candidates should be pressed for their thoughts. And beware easy, get-rid-of-the-bums answers.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society