FOREIGN policy as an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign has been delayed by the riots in Los Angeles, and reexamination of urban America.
Republicans will turn to their trump card - management of national security - as soon as possible. If Democrats continue to ignore the subject, they will demonstrate how little they learned from their defeat of 1988. Most who voted for George Bush that year, according to pollster John Marttila, said national security - not economic or social issues - were uppermost in their minds. In order to win some of those voters, Democrats must articulate a persuasive vision of America's proper world role.
What sort of post-cold-war world role will Americans support? Will the values undergirding the policy that successfully opposed Soviet expansionism apply in today's relatively threat-free environment? Or is the country ready for a Pat Buchanan-style draw-down of the US overseas?
Political strategists need look no further than the public's reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The confrontation with Saddam Hussein forced Americans to sort out national priorities absent the overriding concern about Soviet expansion. More important, it gave them a chance to consider what accomplishments abroad would be worth the sacrifice of lives and dollars.
Analysis of polls done during the Gulf crisis suggests the public would support a US foreign policy with these key ingredients:
Engagement. Americans agonized until the outbreak of war in January 1991 about whether and when to use force against the Iraqis but consistently gave the president high marks for the buildup. Americans rejected the rhetoric of right-wing isolationists like Mr. Buchanan, who asked, "Why is this our problem?" and the warnings of liberals like Michael Kinsley, who derided Mr. Bush's "Rambo illusion." In short, the public accepted the legitimacy of - if not the rationale for - US military involvement.
Adherence to principle. Despite media, members of Congress, and even White House spokesmen, Americans did not consider the Gulf crisis a "pocketbook issue." Assuring a steady supply of oil ranked down the list of reasons they felt justified a US military presence. To most Americans, the invasion of Kuwait was simply a wrong that had to be righted. Even after Saddam released US hostages - a move he believed would gain him sympathy - the polls showed no decline in American willingness to use force to free Kuwait.
Commitment to process. Public opinion supported an orderly approach to the Iraq problem, in which all proper bases were touched and war was a last resort. Americans approved of economic sanctions; many believed, in fact, that more time should have been allowed for them to work. They wanted Congress to be a full partner in making Gulf policy and to approve any use of military force. They wanted to be assured that all diplomatic approaches had been exhausted. White House willingness to engage in process - indeed, to accommodate the public's demand for it - went a long way toward retaining public support.
Belief in multilateralism. Fewer sentiments came through more clearly in the opinion polls than America's expectation of assistance from its allies in resisting Iraqi aggression. Nations seen to be doing less than their fair share plummeted in public standing. Esteem for the UN skyrocketed: an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported in March 1991 that the UN gained respect from 70 percent of those surveyed, and lost respect from only 4 percent. These findings show that Americans are receptive to diligent consensus building among allies and through international groups.
Gulf crisis polling suggested several cautionary lessons:
* Americans tend to react more strongly to personalities than underlying issues: Negative images of Muammar Qaddafi and Manuel Noriega earlier helped gain support for aggression against Libya and Panama. Most Americans likewise saw (and see) Saddam's hold on power as tarnishing the Gulf victory. In June 1991, according to an ABC/Post poll, 69 percent of the public believed we should have continued fighting until Saddam was ousted.
* Americans are realists: While approving of sanctions and negotiations, a majority did not believe they would work against a man like Saddam and that armed conflict would be necessary.
* Americans are divided by race, region, gender, age, and party on key issues: Northeasterners, women, blacks, Democrats, and people over 60, opposed the use of force in Kuwait by a 55 percent to 40 percent margin. Southerners, men, and Republicans favored it by a similar margin. Blacks consistently opposed the whole Gulf venture.
If the 1988 election is any guide, the candidate that best understands and acts on these popular attitudes will have the best chance to win in November.