Restless Foreign Policy

It's hard for US presidents to make world safe for domestic issues

DURING the first year of the Clinton administration, both the president and the American public have preferred to give priority to domestic affairs. However, recent high-level changes at the State Department and Pentagon suggest that the Clinton administration is seeking to strengthen its capacity for dealing with foreign policy. Efforts such as these are likely to become increasingly important and, if the past is any guide, it will be surprising if foreign policy does not intrude or even come to dominate the national agenda during the course of the Clinton presidency. In fact, without exception, all Democratic presidents in this century (and most post-World War II Republicans) have found their administrations eventually overshadowed or even consumed by external crisis or war. Consider the record:

* Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned for reelection in 1916 on keeping America out of the conflict in Europe, ultimately took the country into World War I in 1917.

* Franklin Roosevelt, elected to fight the depression, found the last half of his presidency dominated by the menace of fascism and then World War II.

* Harry Truman, while presiding over postwar recovery, found himself increasingly absorbed in dealing with the start of the cold war and then, from June 1950 onward, fighting the Korean War.

* John Kennedy was faced with the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the mounting escalation of conflict in Indochina.

* Lyndon Johnson, who sought to implement the most far-reaching program of reform in a generation, was ultimately destroyed by the Vietnam War.

* Jimmy Carter, elected in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, found himself drawn into the historic - and time consuming - Camp David process to make peace between Israel and Egypt. Then in rapid succession he suffered a series of political body blows from the revolution in Iran, the second oil shock of the decade, and the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua. Ultimately, the hostage crisis at the American Embassy in Tehran dominated the final 444 days of his presidency.

To be sure, international affairs have by no means been absent from the Clinton agenda. There have been successes: the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization accord, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. There have been troubles: United States casualties in Somalia, uncertainties over policy in Bosnia, inability to restore democracy in Haiti. And other issues have gained a measure of attention: North Korea's nuclear program, events in Russia, the conduct of Saddam Hussein, terrorism, United Nations peacekeeping, and recession in Europe and Japan. None of these, however, has yet posed an indisputably major crisis nor preoccupied the country for more than a relatively brief period.

The administration's desire to focus on domestic problems is understandable. This stems from the election's mandate and the desire to address major problems at home, from the budget to health care to welfare reform to crime. The public appears to share these post-cold-war priorities: Exit polls of voters in the 1992 presidential election found that only 9 percent of Americans cited foreign policy as among the two top issues influencing their vote. Moreover, not only do administration and public priorities seem to coincide, but electoral considerations point in the same direction.

Foreign policy is not politically productive for the Clinton team: The same 1992 exit polls showed that most of those for whom foreign policy was important favored George Bush (87 percent), and current surveys continue to suggest that the public has greater confidence in the administration's handling of domestic issues than foreign affairs. Budget pressures also leave little room for ambitious foreign activities, whether increasing aid to emerging democracies and market economies, meeting the costs of peacekeeping, or maintaining the same global military capability as during the cold war.

Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that virtually none of the major foreign crises that emerged for other Democratic presidents were obvious at the time of their inaugurations. If and when a crisis occurs it will not be simply because of TV images or public perceptions but because the country's vital interests have become fundamentally engaged.

Democratic presidencies typically prefer to concentrate on domestic rather than foreign problems. But history has rarely afforded them the luxury of doing so undistracted, and in the present post-cold-war international environment there is no shortage of potential perils. With its first year in office, the Clinton presidency has established its credentials in domestic affairs. During its remaining years, it is likely to face events that will severely test its capacity for dealing with foreign policy as well. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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