Needed: a New Definition of US Foreign Policy

THIS week's disaster in Bosnia underlines the need for a new definition of US foreign policy.

The architect of American foreign policy, as Bill Clinton tartly reminded a critical Sen. Jesse Helms recently, is the president of the United States. But with his standing diminished, the president must now, in foreign policy as in domestic policy, operate by means of compromise and consensus with a victory-flushed Republican Congress.

How should Democrats and Republicans work together to define foreign-policy objectives in a manner that will achieve the support of a majority of Americans - the essential cornerstone for implementing those objectives? It will require some imaginative statesmanship.

President Clinton's handling of foreign policy, despite some successes, has overall been erratic. The inherited problem of Bosnia has been particularly vexing for him. In the face of American public detachment and American military fear of involvement, he has zigged and zagged, posturing bellicosely against Serbian aggressors but defaulting on specific action.

Though Bosnia is far from American shores, the consequences of diplomatic ineptitude there are significant. This week's events have sent tremors through NATO, whose members are divided over how to respond to the Serbs.

The lack of American leadership on Bosnia has encouraged a string of other nations to test American fortitude. The warlords of Somalia did so and won; American forces withdrew. In Haiti, the Cedras clique is out, but American politics dictate that most US troops will be home by Christmas, leaving behind a messy long-term situation. Saddam Hussein challenged Clinton and lost ignominiously, but North Korea and China and Cuba won, with varying success, their respective confrontations with the White House.

The newly empowered Republicans enter the foreign-policy process with murky ideas of how to proceed. Probably correctly, they are suspicious of the Clinton administration's buy-off of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. They want to cut foreign aid, which could be better administered but should not be discarded.

World events make it impossible for Republicans to turn America isolationist, but the new Congress will be less inclined to project military power in support of diplomacy. Republicans also want to pass a law barring US troops from serving under United Nations, or any other non-American, command. In practice, US soldiers have served under their own commanders since World War I, when John J. Pershing refused to place his troops under allied command. But as non-combat peacekeeping operations become more frequent, the US might be well-advised to retain flexibility.

To conduct foreign policy, a president must carry with him several constituencies: the Congress, public opinion, and the US military.

A president does not have much trouble gathering a majority of each constituency when issues are clear-cut and national interest is at stake. A threat to the territorial integrity of the US or one of its major allies; expansionist tendencies in a nuclear-renascent Russia; the revival of militarism in Japan or reunited Germany; a bid by Iran or Iraq to cut off American oil supplies from the Middle East - these are clearly understood threats that would rally the country behind the president.

More complicated are the regional challenges - Somalia, Haiti - where the US motivation may be humanitarian, or the preservation of political stability, or the installation of a democratic government. American action in such cases is far more palatable both at home and abroad when pursued within a framework of multilateralism - when other nations support American objectives.

US intervention needs to be better defined. What are the US interests? Why should there be a US commitment? What is the possible cost? These questions have not been properly answered by the Clinton administration. They need a statesmanlike approach from both parties.

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