US aims abroad

There's still time to think about Sunday's presidential forum - between the ''brutalizing'' prep process, the cramming on issues and facts, the readying of retorts, and the final makeup for cameras - for the candidates to rise above questions of strategy and make the event a worthy educational moment for the American people.

The forum, on foreign policy, will itself be a test of leadership. The tenor, clarity, practicality, and inspiration of the candidates' presentations will either move American foreign policy thinking forward or they will not. If the event fails to rise above the intellectual equivalent of arm wrestling, if it becomes just an occasion for exacting apologies for macho boasts or a finger-pointing duel over American casualties or captives abroad, what will be served? The candidates must be captains of their own performances Sunday night. They should take time out to reflect on the few important things they want to say about the next four years in American history.

We agree with those who argue that the candidates should be alone on the stage, without the question-framing intrusion of a media panel. Not that we haven't appreciated the quality of panelists' questions thus far. But asking the right questions tops the list of a leader's responsibilities. The questions show which direction he is looking. They focus the attention and energies of his staff. Somehow, with all the clutter of theorizing, analysis, and reportage, it seems there are far more inadequate answers than good penetrating questions. We would prefer that the candidates had an opportunity to question each other. But for the moment at least, the media panel format is the one we have, so it must do.

There are roughly five major foreign policy areas to be addressed. Beginning nearest home, they are Central America and the third world; Europe and the NATO alliance; the Soviet Union and arms control; Israel and its Arab opponents, with strategic, economic, and political overlays in the Middle East; and the growing economic importance of the Pacific Rim nations. A sixth would be American defense and diplomatic policy - an institutional rivalry between White House Cabinet departments, with partisans for each on Capitol Hill - which carries a powerful impact on the federal budget. In a 90-minute exchange, each topic can get only 15 minutes, or 5 to 6 minutes per candidate in time left after questioning. The candidates will have to be precise and direct. The audience will have to listen closely.

Central America: Is the start of direct dialogue between the Duarte government in El Salvador and the rebel forces perhaps a victory for critics of administration policy? Does it not show that leaders must find a way to absorb criticism constructively - to make the congressional review process work for them so as to help shape a policy that can win bipartisan support? And Mexico, to mention the cliches: Is it a neighbor endangered by bankruptcy, a domino in a north-sweeping leftist tide, a population-swelled reservoir ready to burst its dam and inundate United States employment and cities? Or is Mexico the potential economic and cultural asset for a potentially labor-short American economy?

The allies: Whatever happened to Western Europe in this election campaign, anyway? The absence of high-ranking visitors is notable. Are they waiting for the election to blow over?

Superpower relations: Soviets have taken greater explicit interest in the Nov. 6 outcome than have the NATO allies. First, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko stopped by for a talk with both candidates. And now, in anticipation of the final debate, President Konstantin Chernenko in effect offered his own US-Soviet agenda: nonmilitarization of outer space, a mutual freeze on nuclear weapons, test ban treaty ratification, and a no-first-use pledge on nuclear arms. Has the Reagan administration's strategy of preceding talks by an arms buildup worked? Or has it escalated the arms race, put off negotiation, and made agreement more elusive?

The Middle East: Israel's new prime minister, Shimon Peres, was singular among the administration's allied leaders in showing up for Washington talks. While he was here, leaders of several American Jewish organizations endorsed Walter Mondale. Israel benefited in recent days by passage of a special free-trade pact, early delivery of scheduled aid, and a US promise to stand by the financially troubled country in a potential credit crisis; in addition, there were reportedly discussions of even more assistance next year and arrangements to link Israeli purchases of US arms to corresponding imports of Israeli goods - points hard to pin down.

Aiding Israel financially is an easier dimension of US Middle East responsibility. Apart from the question of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, little has been said about the key strategic and diplomatic issues. Should there be a Camp David 2 to end tensions over West Bank settlement? Must the Arab world progress in its own internal development before the Arab-Israeli dispute can reach manageable size? Is Mr. Peres right that a peace-for-land proposal, now debated in Israel, would create its own mandate if it were, like the Sadat initiative and Camp David process, to suddenly emerge? And who would take the lead?

The Pacific: The world's most populous region is undergoing an economic stirring of tremendous consequence. Would erection of US trade barriers, for short-term relief, lead to greater vulnerability?

The issues of Africa, discussed in the column opposite, carry moral and political weight.

And arms: American rearmament under Ronald Reagan, as under Franklin Roosevelt, has become a powerful engine for economic recovery. Is that an economic orientation Americans really want?

Whither US foreign policy, indeed. There is enough to cover for three debates.

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