Clinton's Foreign Policy Revival

After a rough start, the president has carved out a record that could help him this fall

CONVENTIONAL wisdom proclaims that Americans do not elect their leaders based on foreign policy considerations. Recent history suggests, however, that a major international entanglement in which the United States has a clear stake can be either a blessing or a bane for an incumbent president or his opponent. Given the surfeit of significant foreign policy issues that have coincided with the 1996 presidential campaign, both President Clinton and Bob Dole have a unique opportunity to defy convention.

At present, there are several important theaters where American interests are unmistakable: the success of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and attendant terrorism concerns; China's belligerence toward Taiwan and the US; the sustenance of Bosnia's fragile peace; Cuba's resolute defiance on outside interference; and Russia's dalliance with democracy.

There is also a smattering of back-burner, but no-less-serious issues, including the comings and goings of "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea; the sale of nuclear components and technology; and a burgeoning chemical-weapons trade. Errant actions in any one of these arenas could cause thorny problems for Mr. Clinton.

With a caustic and sagacious opponent like Senator Dole, who has spoken on every foreign policy issue since 1960 when he was first elected to the House, Clinton must pay careful attention to the handling of foreign affairs.

Current indicators suggest that Clinton has reached a plateau in foreign policy where, for the time being at least, he is beyond reproach. Early in his administration, however, no one would have predicted that Clinton would survive a series of policy debacles that threatened to render him a one-term president. Not long ago, inside-the-beltway comedians dubbed the president "Jimmy Clinton" because he had so many Carterites in key foreign policy positions and he seemed destined to repeat Carter's missteps. But all that has passed, and Clinton, once again, has reinvented himself - this time as a leader of respectable mettle and prudent policy.

This evolution from visionless foreign policy idealist to astute internationalist has as much to do with personal maturation as it does with political circumstance. Among America's allies and adversaries Clinton's new-found status as a world leader is not only recognized, but very much appreciated. The president's early faux pas on Haiti and Somalia have been forgiven and all but forgotten, except by partisan Republicans and a few malcontents. Clinton's deft handling of such potentially precarious issues as China, the Middle East, and Bosnia has been applauded so far.

With few exceptions, American foreign policy since World War II has reflected the worldview of each president.

President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought "containment" was too static a policy and sought to roll back communist gains. President Carter's beneficent view of the world fashioned foreign policy to human rights. The Bush administration sought to introduce Realpolitik into the foreign policy equation based on an internationalist view of the "new world order."

Although his legacy is inchoate, the Clinton worldview has rapidly matured. While he rejects the "L" word as a descriptive label, Clinton remains the presumptive heir of the liberal tradition in American politics, and that means a fair amount of international engagement. As he moved from his own concept of "enlargement" - an expanded Wilsonian notion of enlarging democracy worldwide - to a policy some characterize as "restrained engagement," Clinton has shown remarkable stamina, resilience, and growth.

His foreign policy success has been most notable in three areas:

Embracing market realities: To the envy of Republicans and the dismay of human rights activists, President Clinton has firmly instilled market-driven considerations into the formal determination of American foreign policy. In the case of China, whose trade status as a Most Favored Nation and a principal emerging market clashes with its human rights record, this has been viewed as problematic. In almost every other case, the president's insistence that commercial factors of keen interest to American industry be a part of foreign policy has won Clinton high marks from business. The president's recognition of market realities dear to US exporters makes him invulnerable to the antibusiness criticism usually aimed at Democrats.

Judicious use of American power: Clinton's reticence to deploy US troops to trouble spots such as Bosnia and Rwanda could be the proverbial cloud with a silver lining. While he withstood criticism from both the right and left for lacking resolve to end human suffering, Clinton has developed a doctrine that emphasizes restraint in the use of force and coordination in a multilateral context.

Including so-called soft issues: Where foreign policy traditionalists minimize global issues affecting the environment and population, the Clinton administration has boldly added these concerns to the foreign policy agenda. American participation in the Cairo population conference and Vice President Al Gore's insistence that the environment is both a national and an international priority have added a humanitarian balance to market-oriented regional policies.

Altogether, these actions point to a Clinton foreign policy that takes risks, solves problems, and has been steeled as a result of early failure. In the process of finding a center, Clinton has stumbled upon a successful formula that encapsulates America's difficult-to-define priorities.

DOLE, no doubt, will challenge this approach. But Clinton can point to a foreign policy that has been strong when necessary, nonpartisan when practicable, and nondoctrinaire most of the time. The president has finally learned to distinguish between symbolism and substance and between important American interests and matters of mere interest to the US.

While anything can happen before November, it is highly unlikely that Clinton will be defeated in 1996 on the basis of foreign policy decisions alone. Given a reasonable argument for continuity in US policy and the inherent power of incumbency, the Clinton doctrine, however ultimately described, easily could become the paradigm for American international relations into the 21st century.

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