Engrossed in our own backyard

The only real question about last Sunday's election in Yugoslavia was whether President Milosevic would steal it or defy it. And, by demanding a runoff on the basis of dubious figures from the Federal Election Commission, he seemed to be trying to do some of both.

Mr. Milosevic remained intransigent as the week wore on. The indicted war criminal had staged a mock trial of Western leaders. He proclaimed that Serbia would never be an American colony. The United States had invested $37 million in supporting the opposition, and the West had promised economic aid and the lifting of sanctions if Milosevic was ousted. A dramatic situation, one might say, but the whole thing made barely a ripple in the consciousness of America in the midst of its election campaign.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein sent fighters to defy the no-fly zone and even penetrate Saudi Arabian airspace on Labor Day, when the US Air Force was off for the holiday. He has rejected United Nations weapons inspectors, and even UN experts who were to assess his humanitarian needs. In recent days, a French and a Russian plane have flown into Baghdad in defiance of UN sanctions. That hasn't caused much of a flurry in the US either. There would undoubtedly be more interest if the Iraqi dictator were to restrict oil exports.

I can hardly remember a presidential year when foreign policy has played so minor a role in the campaign. Both candidates have promised more money for the military. To do what is not clear.

Vice President Al Gore has enunciated a foreign policy called "forward engagement," meaning that we should anticipate problems rather than react to them, if only we saw them coming. Governor Bush has enunciated a policy called "distinctly American internationalism." He has talked of an emerging world of rogue tyrants and weapons of mass destruction.

But neither of them spends much time talking foreign policy, and for a good reason. Americans are not interested.

A Pew Research Center poll indicates that only 6 per cent of respondents want to hear the candidates talk more about foreign policy, compared to 12 percent who want more discussion of education; 11 percent, healthcare; 10 percent, Social Security; and 7 percent, taxes.

America's antagonists, like Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, read these polls, too, and they are undoubtedly led to conclude that the superpower, immersed in domestic debates, can be safely flouted. Both have been targets of American military action in the past, but not during a presidential campaign. Whatever Bush means by "American internationalism" and whatever Gore means by "forward engagement," it's a policy on hold until after Nov. 7.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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