X Marks the Hot Spot: Foreign Policy, Election-Style

CUBA shoots down two unarmed planes, and President Clinton swiftly toughens his position on Castro, embracing drastic sanctions that he previously opposed.

China fires menacing missiles near Taiwan, and the Clinton administration, which has been wooing the Chinese military with high-tech equipment, swiftly veers to warning Beijing of ''reckless'' behavior.

Suicide bombers kill some 60 Israeli bus passengers, and Clinton quickly flies to Egypt and Israel to shore up a shaky peace process and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres's reelection prospects. Not to mention his own.

Once again bombs and missiles in unfriendly hands teach us that foreign affairs do not matter in an American election - except when they suddenly do. The Korean War intruded in the Eisenhower-Stevenson contest in 1952; Hungary and the Suez war in the 1956 rematch; Cuba and the so-called missile gap with Russia in the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 contest; and the Vietnam War in 1968 and '72. Hostages in Iran bedeviled President Carter in 1980.

Until only recently, Mr. Clinton's foreign policy seemed to be riding high, leaving few openings for partisan attack. Promising developments toward stability in Haiti, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and even Bosnia helped the president counteract an earlier impression of inattention and vacillation in international crises.

In his State of the Union address in January, Clinton made so bold as to proclaim the United States ''the world's best peacemaker.''

But then he learned that it doesn't take much to rip the fragile fabric of peace - a few Chinese or Cuban missiles, a few Irish or Palestinian bombs, a few clashes and incendiary fires around Sarajevo. In the post-cold-war world, without a reliable adversary as an organizing principle, it is remarkable how superpowerless a superpower can sometimes seem in the face of fanatics and dictators.

The president flew to the Middle East this week, acting presidential. But the Truman-era time, when Sen. Arthur Vandenberg could say that politics stopped at the water's edge, is long since past. Sen. Bob Dole appears to be circling the president's foreign-policy dilemmas looking for targets of opportunity.

He has criticized Clinton as soft on Cuba and proposed indicting Fidel Castro in an American court. He has said that China is ''testing the president'' because of his ''rather flexible policy'' and that the US should, ''if necessary,'' protect ''the safety of Taiwan.'' He has accused the administration of failing to ''enforce strictly'' the free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

That's for starters. From here on, one can assume that no presidential stroke of bad luck in the world's trouble spots will go unnoticed in the campaign.

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