A Window for Rescuing American Foreign Policy

Conventional wisdom during the recent presidential election campaign held that foreign policy was not an issue. In the sense that no international crisis dominated the debate, this was true. Campaign inhibitions, however, had a profound effect on the United States response to problems abroad.

Bosnia: Reluctant to appear to renege on the pledge that US troops would remain only one year in Bosnia, the president finessed the question during the campaign while quietly preparing for a more extended deployment. The issue should now be faced squarely; US troops are still needed as part of the NATO force in Bosnia if the troops of other countries are to remain and a new war is to be averted.

Moscow's nuclear arms: A clash of political ideologies stood in the way of implementing the dismantling of Russia's nuclear arsenal. The last Congress, still affected by the cold war, balked at appropriating the required funds, calling the program "aid to Russia." Many in Congress preferred to spend far more on a new missile defense system rather than deal with the nuclear threat that exists. That anomaly needs to be reconsidered.

Middle East peace: Presumably less inhibited by voting and fund-raising concerns, the administration is now in a position to make clearer its strong support for implementing the provisions of the Oslo declaration of principles. This could begin by a more forthcoming position in both the White House and Congress on aid to the new Palestinian Authority and a firm stand on Jewish settlements as an obstacle to peace.

Cuba: President Clinton, conscious of electoral politics, reluctantly signed the Helms-Burton legislation penalizing others, including close allies, for dealing with Cuba. In light of the total lack of support from other countries and only moderate evidence of impact on Cuba, it is time to rethink this approach. Any review will be strongly opposed by the bill's author, reelected Sen. Jesse Helms, but without such reconsideration the US faces an extended period of legal and diplomatic challenges and a block on development of alternative policies toward Fidel Castro.

NATO expansion: The strong support in the administration and Congress for NATO expansion arose in part from the desire to win votes among Eastern European ethnic groups in the US. With the election past, it would be wise to think more seriously whether the American public is truly prepared to extend its commitment to use force to the borders of Ukraine. A US Senate rejection of such a pledge, after hopes have been raised in Europe, could spell disaster for US credibility.

Relations with the UN: Even after the election, the strong antagonism toward the United Nations and its Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, remains. Away from the heat of campaign politics, however, the administration should find a graceful way out of the embarrassment of US arrearage in contributing to the UN budget and the abrupt rejection of a further term for Mr. Boutros-Ghali. Neither posture helps Washington in pursuing its international agenda.

Diplomatic readiness: Because of the preelection "balance the budget" syndrome, the administration apparently has been unwilling to press to reverse the disastrous decline in funding for the Department of State and essential resources to support foreign policy. This unwillingness resulted, for example, in the administration's refusal to seek $1 million from Congress to assist Kurdish factions, a sum that might have prevented one faction from turning to Saddam Hussein. Washington was more prepared to spend 20 times that amount on missiles fired into Iraq because such an expenditure was from military funds already appropriated. The closing of posts and downsizing of the diplomatic establishment mean US diplomats will become little more than housekeepers for other government agencies. Is this what the country wants?

Election campaigns distort US foreign policymaking. Domestic politics will always be a factor, whether in the executive or the legislative branch. The constitutional cycle, however, provides windows between elections when policymaking decisions should be less dominated by political fears. Such a time has come and should be used to correct politically motivated errors of the past two years.

*David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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