Election 2004: Foreign affairs will be a domestic affair

The conventional wisdom about presidential elections is that they are lost or won on domestic issues, not foreign policy.

That certainly proved true for the elder George Bush who, with his dramatic victory in the 1991 Gulf War, soared in opinion polls only to crash in his reelection campaign 20 months later because the public lacked confidence in his economic policies at home.

The younger George Bush aims to avoid that mistake. He is paying a great deal of attention to the flaccid American economy, fighting hard for a major tax-cut plan that he believes will stimulate that economy.

But there is a new international factor at play that will likely make foreign policy more significant than usual in the 2004 presidential election. It is the explosion of terrorism and the resulting American war against terrorism as a critical part of US foreign policy.

With the slaughter of thousands of Americans on US soil on Sept. 11, 2001, national security is now, for most Americans, a major domestic concern. When the US strikes at Al Qaeda cells and leaders in faraway places, and topples terrorist-harboring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, that is part of a foreign policy seen to have major domestic implications.

The Bush administration will underline that connection by staging the Republican convention in New York in September next year, less than two weeks before the third anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Mr. Bush must by then show evidence of economic recovery at home, but success in foreign policy will be more important than usual in this presidential election.

Bush will be able to point to the vanquishing of the Taliban and the disruption of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as the elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, as pluses in the war against terrorism.

Diplomacy in general, and the war against terrorism in particular, require that they be underpinned by the ultimate willingness to use force. That US willingness has been amply and successfully demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has been noted in capitals from Damascus and Tehran to Pyongyang, whose regimes may perhaps be less eager in future to support terrorism against the US.

But Bush cannot afford to let postwar reconstruction and democracy-building go sour in Kabul and Baghdad. He must also build on regime changes in those capitals to foster freedom, stability, and development in other Islamic countries where distrust of America breeds terrorism. He must work vigorously to end conflict between Israel and the Palestinians which, more than any other issue, hobbles US diplomacy in the Middle East. The selection of a new Palestinian cabinet that diminishes the role of Yasser Arafat, and with which the US might work, offers some promise. This may make possible, as early as this week, the presentation of Bush's "road map" to the creation of a Palestinian state. This, in turn, will require Bush to bring substantial pressure upon Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to genuinely support the plan in the face of diehard opposition from his political right.

It is easy to pinpoint these agenda items for Bush but they require immense skill and effort to implement in an incredibly turbulent region of the world.

There is also a large world beyond the Middle East that the US cannot ignore. Relations with non-Arab Islamic lands, like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey must be tended. Their progress toward democracy and stability could have influence upon more stridently Islamic societies.

In Asia, the nuclear-weapons program of the erratic regime in North Korea must be restrained. The nuclear weaponry of India and Pakistan must be contained.

Cuba simmers in economic desperation and political repression that could explode at any moment, with major consequences for the US.

In Europe, though it is tempting for the US to ostracize the Chiracs and Schröders who led France and Germany to such unhelpful postures in Iraq, longtime alliances cannot be discarded. However, Britain's Tony Blair must surely be awarded a permanent place in the pantheon of American allies for the courage and principle he displayed.

Then there is NATO to be tended as it seeks a new post-cold-war role. Also there is the UN, stumbling after its political ineffectiveness over Iraq, but still a factor in international humanitarian rescue efforts, the burden of which the American taxpayers should not shoulder alone.

Foreign policy, as well as the economy, will shape the presidential election debate just beginning.

John Hughes, a former Monitor editor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, served as US assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Reagan administration and UN assistant secretary-general in 1995.

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