The High Ground in Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

When candidate Bill Clinton developed his strategy for winning the presidency, foreign policy was nowhere in the plan. As a little-known governor of an obscure, landlocked Southern state, he had no identifiable foreign affairs experience.

His opponent, President George Bush, had devoted most of his public life to international politics. Foreign affairs were Bush's strong suit. Clinton, in contrast, rightly perceived that foreign policy issues were not going to put him in the White House. As a good student of presidential history, Clinton knew that foreign policy (except in time of war) was seldom the decisive factor in swaying voters.

When he took office in January 1993, Clinton was a new president with an exclusive domestic policy tilt. Foreign relations would be entrusted to more experienced professionals.

Generally speaking, presidents do not start out with an overwhelming background in foreign relations. The two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon, all with unfailing egos, did fancy themselves as foreign policy adepts. Herbert Hoover had some experience, but didn't consider it his strong suit. Dwight Eisenhower could lay genuine claim to some expertise. So too Bush. John Kennedy was intrigued by foreign policy but could not be classified as experienced. Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan found themselves, like Clinton, not well versed.

Over time, a change in attitude and interest occurred in Clinton - just as a change in attitude has occurred in every new president. Conversations and communications with foreign leaders take on an exhilarating prominence. Daily briefings and discussions on world affairs quickly develop a heightened interest in the mind of a new chief executive.

Foreign policy is the one area where the president has things to himself. There are foreign affairs committees of Congress that have to be pacified, but the president directs a huge force of diplomats stationed in every capital around the globe. The president also commands the world's greatest armed force, which can be deployed, if need be, to back up his diplomatic decisions.

A president may be rebuffed by Congress on some domestic legislative proposals, but in foreign policy, he reigns supreme - unless, like Johnson in Vietnam, that policy blows up in his face. …