GEORGE BUSH immersed himself in foreign policy, largely ignored domestic policy, and thereby lost his campaign for reelection.
Bill Clinton immersed himself in domestic policy, thereby winning the election, but largely ignored foreign policy. Now he is in danger of losing the electorate that put him into the White House.
This incongruity, with its impact on party politics, is all very fascinating, and it is easy to become distracted by the ups and downs in Washington as Mr. Clinton strives to recover.
We should avoid the temptation. American foreign policy has worked best when it has had bipartisan backing in Congress, when its goals have been clearly defined and, above all, when a majority of the American people has supported them. None of those factors is currently present.
The people need a clear definition of American foreign-policy goals in the post-cold-war era - a vision they can understand and support. Two principles should guide American policy as the United States enters this puzzling new world:
1. The national interest.
2. The spread of democracy.
The two are not unconnected. Protecting the national interest means ensuring the safety and well-being of Americans and their homeland. Encouraging the spread of liberty is not only the principled thing to do, it is also in the national interest. Democracies do not usually start wars, and they are generally friendly toward the US.
The most successful aspect of the Clinton administration's foreign-policy effort has been its handling of Russia. It was clearly in the US national interest to back Boris Yeltsin. He is the best bet for the reform that must presage stability in Russia.
And though it may seem strange to say of a man who bombards parliament and shuts down opposition newspapers, he is also the best bet for ultimate democracy. His opponents, masquerading as democrats, were in fact the die-hard communists who would have thwarted democracy.
Clinton's decisionmaking has been much blurrier in Bosnia, Somalia, and now Haiti. In Bosnia there is clear American national interest. Instability in the Balkans is dangerous. There is also a clear moral imperative to halt an ethnic holocaust. But the US has dallied, citing as an excuse that European nations were loath to act. The president argues for multilateralism - a worthy objective. But there is multilateralism with American leadership, as in the Gulf war, and multilateralism without American leadership, as in Bosnia.
In Somalia there is little American national interest that one can perceive. But former President Bush dispatched troops there because people were dying of starvation.
Under the Clinton administration the mission became a vendetta against a particularly unpleasant warlord with whom the US, at times, was trying to negotiate, while simultaneously trying to arrest him.
To Haiti, where neither the national interest nor the fate of democracy was entirely clear, Clinton's State Department wanted to dispatch troops, while his Defense Department did not. It is in these less clearcut areas that the American people need guidance. They need to understand the principles underlying the president's foreign policy. They need to be clear about the factors that determine American involvement or noninvolvement.
The American people cannot support the president's policies if they are unsure of his own intent and resolve.