`Cautious Involvement' Makes Good Foreign Policy

DEAR Mr. President:

You are being criticized from every side for not having an overarching foreign policy that would apply to every global problem. Something like ``containment'' in the cold-war years.

Those were the days when just being against communism constituted a foreign-policy position. Now you have all these fires to put out. They require individual attention; no overall policy really applies. In this uncertain global climate you have, indeed, looked irresolute.

It may be just wishful thinking, but I believe I see a definite Clinton policy shining through: I'd call it ``cautious involvement.'' It might be just right for our times - if you don't muff it by talking too much. A strong supporter of yours, Rep. Lee Hamilton, told a Monitor breakfast the other morning that he wishes you would cease talking and shaping foreign policy in public. He thinks you should work out your foreign policy with your experts, then state that position in a formal speech. He wants more caution in communicating your cautious policy.

This cautious policy mirrors public opinion. Yes, polls show that a high percentage of Americans think you blow an uncertain trumpet in foreign affairs. But don't give too much heed to that reference point on how you are doing. Several polls show what my findings tell me is true: The American public isn't panting for you to involve the nation abroad or to get American lives lost in some foreign commitment.

No, the public's intense focus is elsewhere. People are passionate about ending crime. They also feel strongly about bettering children's education, improving the environment, reforming welfare, keeping our economy churning along, and, as you so well understand, getting a health-care program that costs less and works for all.

With the nuclear threat no longer hovering over them, Americans aren't giving much thought to foreign policy. A kind of isolationism has taken over - nothing like the America First movement of the 1930s but more like a national sigh of relief that the cold war is over and it's time to look inward and take care of problems at home.

Unlike the isolationists of years ago, Americans today want the United States to assert global leadership, if it can be achieved without too much sacrifice.

You sensed that public attitude when you ran as a candidate who would as president focus on domestic problems. You were right then and you are right now when you sense that while ``cautious involvement'' may not please everyone, it is really what most Americans want today.

Speaker Tom Foley said much of the above while defending your foreign policy at a recent Monitor breakfast. He stressed the ``complexity'' of the times, how impossible it was for a president to shape one foreign policy that fits all situations.

Mr. Foley was asked to respond to criticism expressed earlier at this same breakfast forum, from Zbigniew Brzezinski and Sen. Richard Lugar, that you simply didn't spend enough ``quality time'' thinking about foreign policy. Stressing your ``quick grasp'' of intricate problems, Foley said this assessment wasn't true.

My view is that your instincts and political feel are leading you on the right course. It's a direction that takes a lot of careful probing. But by letting so many people in on what often is an emerging, tentative strategy for this or that region of the world, you open the door for criticism that you are tinkering with foreign affairs.

So, Mr. President, here is my formula for making ``cautious involvement'' work: Speak quietly and discreetly - and don't let your words go beyond your intentions.

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