WASHINGTON — Our nation is filled with acrid partisan politics, turning in upon itself, at just the moment when international stability may depend on United States leadership.
The first reason for genuine concern is that, historically, political transitions have been opportune moments for regional troublemakers and local spoilers to sow mischief. Power abhors a vacuum. Both through design and accident, challenges will fall on the world's preponderant power in 2001.
Bill Clinton's first year in the White House, 1993, proved a colossal challenge in the realm of international affairs:
* Early in the year, officials uncovered an Iraqi intelligence service plot to kill former President Bush in a car-bomb attack during his visit to Kuwait. The administration fired 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles in retaliation.
* On March 12, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Two months later it launched a medium-range Nodong missile off Japan, ushering in a rising crisis on the peninsula.
* In May, the US humanitarian relief operation in Somalia gave way to an ill-conceived United Nations mission. The US became drawn into a deadly firefight in Mogadishu on Oct. 3, leading to the withdrawal of US and eventually UN forces.
* In the summer, Bosnian Serbs began the strangulation of Sarajevo, the televised shots of which placed ever-greater public pressure on the US and Europe to act and which later led to the US and NATO intervention.
This was only the first year. The Clinton administration continued to pay for its early inattentiveness and inexperience. For instance, the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 - which led the US to dispatch two aircraft-carrier battle groups in response to Chinese military exercises and missile tests off Taiwan - could have been averted with stronger, more assiduous diplomacy on the part of the US in 1994 and 1995. This is precisely the kind of unintended consequence the nation may face two or three years hence if we are not prepared to assume a leadership position in global affairs in the coming transition months.
The Clinton administration, which came to office with a clear electoral victory, eventually recovered from these setbacks. A Bush or Gore administration may not only have a questionable mandate, but it may also have a difficult time getting a coherent foreign and national-security policy team confirmed and into position.
This is possibly even more dangerous because, as severe as the multiple challenges of 1993 were, 2001 could be worse:
* Saddam Hussein has been contained and deterred but not defeated. He is undoubtedly looking for the way finally to bust out of US-led sanctions, especially with a deteriorating Arab-Israeli peace process and at a time when the US is distracted at home.
* North Korea's Kim Jong Il launched a diplomatic campaign this year, capped by a North-South summit meeting in June. But he has not yet agreed to any reductions in military threat. The next US administration will have to be prepared to deal with a more angry North Korean regime with a penchant for brinksmanship.
* Osama bin Laden, the reputed mastermind behind the twin embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and possibly the suicide attack on USS Cole in October, may have every reason to take this opportunity to escalate his terror campaign.
* While Somalia may be enjoying its first elected president in a decade, the rest of Africa is consumed by some 17 intrastate conflicts. The failing UN missions in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo threaten not only to prolong suffering in West and Central Africa, but also to undermine the viability of future UN peacekeeping operations.
* In Bosnia, five years after Dayton, questions abound about the political will to retain a critical military presence given the absence of political and economic progress on the ground.
Meanwhile, the US in 2001 cannot count on the support of other major powers, such as China and Russia.
Even its allies in Europe and East Asia are wobbly on some tough issues. Building new coalitions of the willing is a time-consuming, 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year vocation, and a distracted America may not be sufficiently vigilant.
Even those pundits who predict a smooth presidential transition seldom speak of international security.
It is not our purpose to predict gloom and doom; this is less a forecast than a warning. There are higher stakes at risk than our Florida fiasco.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle should settle on a New Year's resolution that US domestic politics stop at the water's edge.
The key to overcoming partisan rancor will be the new president, who must set a tone of bipartisanship in the first 100 days.
The world is too dangerous for us to do otherwise.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is director of research and studies at the United States Institute of Peace. Dr. Audrey Kurth Cronin is writing on political violence and terrorism as a research fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society